Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.
There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.
The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.
Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.
Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed. An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is.
The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.
In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.
Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine. As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.
I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.
Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.
I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.
It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.
Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.
Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.
This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.
Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame. A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.
The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.
It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.
Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.
There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.
The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.
For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.
It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.
The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy. The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.
I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.
My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine. This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.
When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.
Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/
El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station. Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/
I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.