Peninsula Valdes is flat and dusty. The pavement ends just around Puerto Piramides, a tiny whale-watching port set amidst some amazing hills of sand, fossils and brush.
The rental car company has a long list to ‘not-to-dos’ before we leave. Do not use the brakes, do not go over 50 kilometres per hour, do not open the windows; if I didn’t grow up on gravel roads, it could be pretty intimidating. The owner of the car rental even suggests that there could be dust storms along the road and the wind forecast looks grim. Cool!
If Churchill has taught me one thing, it is that forecasts are usually not quite right so if someone tells you that you probably will not see something, you should likely head straight for that place. And that’s what we did.
There is a lot of driving in Argentina, even from Puerto Madryn to Piramides to Punta Norte is a long drive, not quite ‘Canada-long’ but pretty long. The gravel road is surprisingly good as in way better than ‘Canada-good’. Still, the miles of shrub are only occasionally broken by some wary sheep and wild guanacos (pretty much alpacas…).
At Punto Norte, we arrive at an abrupt Park Service development. Argentina takes protecting Peninsula Valdes seriously, aside from the boardwalks and fences at designated areas, there is at least one or two park service staff on hand to watch visitors and, um, close the place earlier than the sign says… so don’t get there late!
After a somewhat complicated process, we managed to find out the best time for the best chance to see Orca in December. Information is a treasured prize in Argentina and kind of hard to obtain and even when you manage to find some, the next person will come along and gratefully share a complete contradiction to what you just learned. The pampas may be greening by the day but Argentina maintains its gray area everywhere.
Anyway, Punta Nortes is one of the very few places where Orca will practice the ‘intentional stranding’ behaviour. Here, they swim along the shoreline and try to grab a seal or sea lion pup if they can. Of course, peak season is around March but Orca can be seen from December to April and you never know.
The tricky thing for the Orca is that they cannot quite see the seal on shore, so it is almost a random chance at success. Then add the fact that they need to approach at the correct angle to counter the current and you can see why only a select few of them ever participate in these attempts.
At this time of year, the Orca are likely helping the young practice ‘intentional stranding’ as opposed to seriously hunting. They travel near shore and either nose up or almost nose up while adults are nearby to help out if things go a little wonky.
Of course, if there is a successful hunt, the lead Orca takes the prey back to the pod and ‘shares’ its success with the group. This is where you see the pictures of seals being tossed in the air. The adult Orca will toss the seal in the air to allow the young Orca to practice their hunting techniques. Pretty crazy and a pretty crappy deal for the seal if you ask me.
Punta Norte is a beautiful place but at the same time, it is a bit morbid to be standing there with other tourists watching fur seals and sea lions do their thing (which is sleep and belch at each other) and kind of waiting for one of them to be eaten by a killer whale. But hey, what can you do…
We spent three tides (and planned to break in to the Parks facilty for a fourth before visiting hours until we were prematurely caught and scolded in Spanish…) with some success.
By the second tide, we watched a pod of Orca cruise back and forth in the distance, seemingly heading towards shore before something caught their interest and they bee-lined south. Killer whales are fast.
The last day we arrived just before high tide and just in time for a pod of Orca to cruise right in front of the viewing area, stopping here and there to ‘test’ the shoreline, circle and then continue on. It was pretty cool and part of me is kind of glad they didn’t start playing seal toss while we were there.
Taking the group tour to Peninsula Valdes, you drastically reduce your chances of seeing this behaviour as it only really occurs for the hour or two surrounding high tide. Rent a car and spend three days on the peninsula, it is worth it.