Postcard from Patagonia: Adventure in the Wild South
The predawn hours at Estancia La Ernestina during the month of March are often very cool with temperatures around 5 - 8 degrees Celsius (45 – 47 degrees F). A team of dedicated photographers gather quietly over battery powered lights to consume a light breakfast of biscuits, muesli and café con leche before stowing cameras, related gear, water and packed snacks aboard one of two Land Rovers for the day’s journey into the field. It will be a long day “staked out” at one of several ocean vantage points for a day of searching for the distinctive “blows” of the regions super predators, Orcas.
These are not just any orcas, these Patagonian family groups totaling less than two dozen different animals, are extraordinary and distinct from all other orcas in the world. They hunt the region’s young of the year seal lions by stealthily approaching the youngsters while they are learning to swim at the water’s edge and in a burst of power strand themselves on the gravel beaches to grab one of the pups. Successful attacks are dramatic and yield a pup in the jaws which then is dragged offshore to be shared with other family members. The spectacle is like no other in the animal kingdom and these diligent observers have fortified themselves to be patient.
Attacks are extremely rare to witness and only occur while the sea lion pups are very young and vulnerable during a few weeks in the Patagonian late summer and early autumn. Over the years many visitors including film crews and serious wildlife photographers have spent weeks in the area only to be sent home frustrated because nature did not line up the stranding spectacle in time with their planned visits to this beautiful yet extremely wild and remote location in southern Argentina.
The majestic view over Estancia La Ernestina at Punta Norte, a working sheep ranch all year round. (below)
For the third year in a row I joined this hardy band of adventurers in their seasonal stake out on the northern tip of Peninsula Valdez- a place called Punta Norte. I had set aside two weeks to try my luck in the search having hit photographic pay dirt in a similar length visit in 2017. Some of our group had set aside a whole month, choosing to increase their odds. Historical records suggest that these stranding orca’s hunting sea lions might appear on 20 – 30 % of the days during the season (Season = 45 – 60 days). Only a fool or a naive tourist would expect to catch a glimpse of an attack on a short weekend visit. I knew better. Fortunately for the group we all enjoy wild environments and take delight in observing and photographing the various other wildlife groups that also inhabit the 20 kilometers coastline of this 50,000 hectare Estancia which by the way is a working sheep ranch. Other Patagonian wildlife included the myriad of critters from spectacular insects to birdlife (from raptors to shorebirds to penguins), wild cats, foxes , sea lions, elephant seals and many more. And also amazing landscapes and skies…especially at night.
As in any wildlife pursuit weather is a profound factor which directs the timing and locations of our daily 12 hour stakeouts and in some cases, with storm conditions, we are “blown off the beaches as the strong breaking seas will usually prevent the orcas from hunting. We managed to amuse ourselves with the rest of the incredible wildlife at Punta Norte. Check out some of the images here. A stunningly wild and beautiful place!
A pair of American Oystercatchers (below)
An young Elephant seal plays in the surf (below)
One of the nearly 250,000 Magellanic penguins that spend time on Punta Norte during the year. Most were out at sea feeding at this time.
A female South American sea lion and a gaggle of youngsters (below) getting their daily swimming practice lesson. The sound of the youngsters splashing is a key to attracting the orcas.
A pair of Peregrine Falcons (below) that delighted us with their pigeon hunting prowess as we observed them from out lighthouse vantage point at times during the day.
An American Kestrel hunting in hovering mode. (below)
The powerful Black Chested Buzzard Eagle searches for prey. One of the Valdez peninsula's largest raptors. (above)
A Great Horned Owl flushes as we walked into one of the dry canyons on the Estancia. (below)
A Peregrine in a powerdive cruising at a cool 100 MPH + (below)
Grey foxes prowl the territory (below)
The highly secretive and elusive wild Goffrey's Cat (above) Seen here while foraging on a nest of turkey eggs on the farm.
A beautiful two banded Plover foraged on the beach as we waited.
Below is one of the insect world's most remarkable and ferocious members, the Tarantula Hawk., a spider wasp so diabolical that it captures its prey (tarantulas) with a toxin that paralyzes but does not kill. The Tarantula Hawk drags the unfortunate prey into a brood nest then injects a single egg into the host tarantula allowing larvae to mature by feeding on the still alive but immobile tarantula until the larvae are ready to hatch. The Tarantula Hawks bite is not deadly to humans but is said to be one of the most painful bites in the animal kingdom! according to Wikipedia - one researcher described the pain as "...immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one's ability to do anything, except scream.
One of the areas many tarb=ntulas who mainly show themselves after dark..just about anywhere. Scary looking but not dangerous to humans unlike the scorpions we were on the look out for on our night excursions.
The entire month of March came and went at Punta norte without the customary appearance of these super orcas! I post the image below from the 2017 expedition to give you a chance to see these amazing beasts in action.
Our band of adventurers (above) hail from Canada, USA, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina. (Photo Courtesy Lina Gruen)
The famous lighthouse at Punta Norte just before dawn. (above)
If you look closely (above) you can see one of our "stake out" in the distance on the gravel beach and the sea lion haul out just beyond. The cluster of bones marks the spot we can enter the beach area without spooking the sea lions.
Geniuses at work in morning light.
If interested to learn more please check out our post from April 2017 https://www.wildcapecod.com/blog/date/2017-04