Thanks to deep ocean currents that bring nutrients and abundant food, the coast of southern Argentina plays host to bountiful marine life. To see these creatures hunt, court, nest and raise their young renews one’s sense of wonder along these lonely Atlantic shores.
Southern Sea Lions
Found year-round along the southern coast of Argentina, these burly swimmers feed on squid and the odd penguin.
Southern Right Whales
In spring, the shallow waters of Península Valdés attract thousands of these creatures to breed and bear young.
To witness raw nature at work, visitors flock to Punta Norte on Península Valdés, where these powerful creatures almost beach themselves in the hunt for sea lions, from mid-February to mid-April.
Southern Elephant Seals
Consummate divers, these monsters spend most of the year at sea. In austral spring, spy on their breeding colony at Punta Delgada on Península Valdés. Watch for beachmasters – dominant males controlling harems of up to 100 females.
Southern-right-whale populations are growing around the world. However, many threats affect their present and future. Newborn calves have been dying in unprecedented numbers in the Península Valdés nursery ground, according to the International Whaling Commission. Long-term research from the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB; www.icb.org.ar), a nonprofit that studies the whales and has photo-identified over 3000 individuals since 1971, has found that the whales have fewer calves than expected following diminished krill in feeding grounds near the South Georgia Islands. The scarcity is the direct consequence of a warming climate. The institute is also studying a vexing problem on Península Valdés: gulls feeding off live whales, which produces lesions and affects their normal behavior. Members of the local whale-watching community have joined with the ICB, contributing data and photographs to help better understand the problems. Those who want to help can Adopt a Whale via the ICB website, which also has links to scientific publications.
Big Feet, Tall Tales
Say ‘Patagonia’ and most think of fuzzy outdoor clothes, but the name that has come to symbolize the world’s end still invites hot debate as to its origin.
One theory links the term ‘Patagón’ to a fictional monster in a best-selling 16th-century Spanish romance of the period, co-opted by Magellan’s crew to describe the Tehuelche as they wintered in 1520 at Puerto San Julián. Crew member and Italian nobleman Antonio Pigafetta described one Tehuelche as ‘so tall we reached only to his waist… He was dressed in the skins of animals skillfully sewn together… His feet were shod with the same kind of skins, which covered his feet in the manner of shoes… The captain-general [Magellan] called these people Patagoni.’
Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Spanish pata, meaning paw or foot. No evidence corroborates the claim that the Tehuelche boasted unusually big feet (it’s possible that the skins they wore made their feet seem exceptionally large). But it’s good fodder for the genre of travelers’ tales, where first impressions loom larger than life.