Isaac and I arrived in the dusty port city of Puerto Madryn, Argentina after a twenty-four hour bus ride from Bariloche, Argentina. Having spent the last month in the high Andes of Chilé and Argentina, to being suddenly immersed in a desert seascape in the upper most region of Patagonia on the Atlantic Ocean was a little bewildering. Summer in the Southern Hemisphere was in full bore, with temperatures rising close to ninety degrees Fahrenheit. It always amazes me to be in a desert near the ocean. I just imagine the desert’s thirsty struggle for water, taunted by the unattainable salty interior of the sea lapping its shore.
Puerto Madryn is a strange port city in the dustbowl of Patagonia. For a traveler, the only reason to go there is to tour the nearby Península Valdés, an UNESCO world heritage site, that is a wildlife sanctuary for marine and terrestrial animals alike. The vast shoreline of Península Valdés encompasses many gulfs, small islands, rocky cliffs, coastal sand dunes, and shallow bays It is home to the Southern Elephant Seal, which has its most northern colony here. It is also home to armadillos, Southern Sea Lions, guanacos, a high diversity of birds, including rheas, and the mara, a very large rodent related to guinea pigs that is endemic to Argentina. The marine mammal population includes the endangered Southern Right Whale, who use the protected waters for mating and calving, as well as orcas, and the Megellanic Penguin who are present in the thousands. We had come to this far reaching spit of land that protrudes one hundred kilometers into the South Atlantic to see the several threatened or endangered species of animals that made this unique point their sanctuary.
We began to see bottlenose dolphins and the world’s smallest dolphin, the Commerce Dolphin right away. The Commerce Dolphin is black and white, small and fast! The dolphins were wonderful, showing off their sleek, elegant bodies, chasing the wake of the boat and playfully propelling themselves from their liquid sanctuary in fancy aerial displays. I absolutely loved them. They were truly happy and it rubbed off on me, as I couldn’t stop smiling.
Isaac hugged me against the railing of the boat, salty mist sprayed my face and we watched the coastline fall away as the dolphins played. Our first whale sighting was of a spout of water shooting through the air in the distance. You could hear their capacious breaths as they submerged beneath the surface again. We came closer and were able to see their magnificent size. There were many females with their young. The peaceful creatures were curious and came right up to the boat, dwarfing it with their colossal bodies. A young whale came within arms distance; I was ecstatic upon seeing it’s marvelous beauty up close. These creatures were truly amazing. It made me terribly sad that they are endangered and incredibly happy to have been in their presence. I think Isaac got more joy from watching my fervent happiness than from the whales themselves!
We headed toward a rocky shoreline teeming with elephant seals. The frumpy creatures were spread out on the sandy strips between the rocks flipping sand on their bulky bodies to stay cool. Peppered amongst the seal colony were penguins. I have always loved penguins with their funny swaying shuffle and luxuriously dense feathers. These penguins were not camera shy, and almost seemed to make funny faces and poses as I snapped away at their Oreo colored bodies.
The chicks were funny and awkward with their downy grey fluff protruding in patchy splotches on their crouched bodies. They were so young that they could not stand straight and took on the appearance of an arthritic, hunched old man, paradoxical to the lustrous beauty of their elders. A gawky penguin fight ensued with loud squawking and awkward slaps to the face with their flipper-like wings. These funny creatures delighted me, and I practiced my best penguin walk for Isaac on the way back to the car.
Later, back in a hostel in Puerto Madryn, we made dinner with a lively bunch of travelers. After a few glasses of wine, the group entered a friendly, but heated discourse about religion, lead by a French atheist, Jewish Israeli, and a catholic man from Portugal. Isaac and I listened in fascination, appreciative that we were able to converge with this lively group of people in such an unlikely place after such an amazing day. I was reminded, as I constantly am on these fortuitous occasions, how special traveling really is, and how much you can learn by leaving your comfort zone.