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  • John J King II

Wild Patagonia: Peninsula Valdez

Once each year for about 6 weeks a unique spectacle of nature occurs in a remote part of Argentina's wild Atlantic coast. In the beginning of March the young sea lions which were born about 6 weeks earlier are just getting brave enough to swim on the gentle surf line of gravel beaches on Punta Norte, Peninsula Valdes. It is precisely at this time every year that a small population of transient orcas (mammal feeders) return to these beaches to hunt for the young pups in a the most unique and spectacular way. Not a primary source of food since it is a strictly seasonal hunt many believe these orca consider the pups a very special treat. The orca have learned to drive themselves up on to the gravel beach in an act of surprise to take the young seal lions right out of the surf line before they even know what hits them. Each year naturalists and wildlife photographers gather to try to witness and capture these events thereby recording the activities of this rare and small group of orcas. After several years of planning we were able to join this fortunate group of dedicated enthusiasts to try to witness the spectacle in person.

We stayed at the very north end of the Peninsula near Punta Norte and most days began before dawn with detailed scans of the coast line from the Lighthouse pictured below. Once weather conditions were calibrated the team would head down to the beach and stake out the territory with a good vantage point of the sea lions often only 30 to 50 meters away from the animals who soon got used to our benign presence.

The plan was to spend 6 days on the Peninsula before departing to join a research expedition ship in southern Argentina to travel to Antarctica. I was limiting my chances of seeing an orca attack to just a narrow window but was willing to gamble. The orca attacks occur every year but the timing is totally unpredictable and no one knows when they will happen. Waiting thus requires patience staking out camera hides on the beach near the sea lion haul outs for 12 to 14 hours (from before sunrise until after sunset as the events can happen at any time. Members of the team must continually scan the horizons and the beach coastline for any signs of approaching orca usually noticed with a blow of exhale from their breathing hole. Our mentor and guide for the experience was the dedicated and tireless orca conservationist Juan Manuel Capello whose family has owned a local Estancia (ranch - raising sheep) for the past 100+ years. which includes about 20 kilometers of coastline in the north of the Peninsula. Juan and a team of researchers have been monitoring these orcas for decades keeping track of family lineages and yearly events. Not all orcas perform the stranding hunting behavior but it does appear that some adult orcas train younger orca in the technique. The orcas live to be in there 80s and even older.

During our day long vigils we observed sea lion and bird behavior and the general surroundings of the beautiful and wild coastline. On a couple of days when surf conditions were to rough for hunting we hiked inland and checked out other local birds and fauna. After 6 days of no action I delayed my departure two full days hoping for an event and was finally rewarded with a surprise attack in the early afternoon on my last day. A beautiful female orca known as Jasmine was spotted a short distance down the beach and within 3 minutes she exploded out of the surf about thirty meters away narrowly missing her prey. She then moved off with another three orcas to try their luck further known the peninsula

The event was just amazing to witness.

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