Argentinian Diary – Beagle Channel, sea lions, cormorants, Arctic terns and giant Southern petrels

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Argentinian Diary – Beagle Channel, sea lions, cormorants, Arctic terns and giant Southern petrels

Being in the most southerly town in the world one of the things to do is to get out on the water and visit a few of the tiny islands that litter the area. Although the overwhelming number of these islands aren’t, and never have been, occupied by humans that doesn’t mean to say that no one lives there – at least for part of the year.

The regular tours take in some of the closest islands that are the home of sea lions (virtually all the time) and migratory and nesting birds.

Sea lions

Sea lions

The sea lions seem to get on with everyone as they were mixed up with the different species of birds whilst the birds themselves seem to congregate only with their own species. There were two species of cormorant (have to wait till I get home to check my books before being able to state definitely which actual varieties – I forgot to check with the guide for the English name) one black and white and the other also black and white but with very deep red plumage around the eyes.

Rock cormorant

Rock cormorant

There was also a colony of extremely noisy Arctic terns. I’ve seen them before but not in such a close concentration, hundreds of them on a very small island.

It was interesting to experience the different environment of the different species. Bird watching in such concentrations is not just a visual matter – it’s also and audio and olfactory experience. The cormorants could be smelt a mile off downwind and although little remains now their guano had been harvested for use on the land for fertilizer in the past – the rocks bleached white by the acidity of their droppings.

Imperial cormorant

Imperial cormorant

On the other hand it was the noise that made the Arctic tern colony more than just a visual experience.

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns

I was also pleased that on two occasions a couple of giant Southern petrels skimmed the water close behind the boat. This was the first time I’d seen such a big seabird in its environment and it was as impressive as all the nature programmes imply. A huge bird but with a total dominance of the air. The strong winds probably helped their manoeuvres and it was a bit of a privilege to see them so close to the waves, one of them even landing in the sea. (I first thought that I was seeing an albatross, to me as an amateur they look similar in the face but an albatross is white – something I’d forgotten. But it was a beautiful bird to see flying nonetheless. I’ll have to wait to see my first albatross, it seems.) 

Giant Southern petrel

Giant Southern petrel

There were other birds, some of which I was able to record – even though sometimes from a distance – where again I don’t know the English name – but will try to update this post in the future.

Goose

Goose

Some of these tours (but I don’t think those that use the bigger boats) include a short visit to Isla Bridges – named after the British Missionary who was one of the first non-indigenous inhabitants of what came to be known as Ushuaia, but basically a foreign coloniser of a land where people already lived – and that was interesting to get an idea of the type of vegetation that thrives in this quite hostile environment. Even in summer the wind can cut you like a knife.

Gull

Gull

Not a cheap trip, none of the organised trips are in this part of the world, but worth it nonetheless.

Recommended.

Practical Information

Many of the boat companies that have a small ticket office on the Muelle Turísticio in Ushuaia will run the standard ‘Beagle Channel’ tour. It’s basically the tour people will do if they want to get away from the shore and get to know a few of the innumerable islands in Tierra del Fuego. The route they follow is more or less the same – although I got the impression they agree amongst themselves when exactly to arrive at any islands so as not to have boats fighting to provide the best view of the wild life – and the only difference is the size of the boat and what they might offer in addition to the basic tour.

The trips are also about the same length, around three and a half hours. They leave every day (weather permitting) in the summer and there are also departures in the spring and autumn.

I went for the smallest boat that seemed to be making the regular trips, it took a maximum of 12 paying passengers, even though it might have been slightly more expensive.

This was with Yate Tango (with a small kiosk at the Muelle Turístico) and cost AR$ 1,800. There’s also a small charge of AR$ 20 for the port tax.

Under normal circumstances (I did the journey in abnormal circumstances on 24th December where there was only the morning tour, with none the following day) there are departures at 10.00, 15.00 and 19.30 – the sunset tour.

There will be a bilingual guide whose English might or might not be that good.

As with all boat trips the exact itinerary will be dependent on the weather. The winds can really get up in this part of the world, especially in the summer, and that can make the Beagle Channel extremely choppy. Uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.

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Argentinian Diary – Peninsula Valdés, whales and elephant seals

Southern Right Whale
Southern Right Whale

Argentinian Diary –Peninsula Valdés, whales and elephant seals

Peninsula Valdés is probably the most accessible of places for visitors, both Argentinian and foreigners, to get a chance to see whales, elephant seals, sea lions and penguins (who were at a part of the peninsula I didn’t visit). Regular, day long tours start from the town of Puerto Madryn which is ‘only’ a 19 hour overnight bus journey from Buenos Aires. (In Argentinian terms that’s close.)

I won’t be going into much detail about the animals themselves as other places will provide more detailed and accurate information than I can. All I want to do here is give a bit of information about how such a visit can be made, with up to date costs and to provide a gallery of images taken at the time of my visit.

There is a bit of confusion about the times that whales can be seen in the Golfo Nuevo. I was there at the beginning of December. Most information states that the whales would have gone by then, having spent previous months in the birthing and mating process they would then be ready to head south to start feeding in the Antarctic summer. That’s true to a certain extent but perhaps due to the fact they are no longer hunted some stay in the area for a bit longer. However, locals stated that the trip I was on was lucky to have seen a couple of whales (a mother and calf) nonetheless.

A comment on the images

The pictures of the whales were taken from a tourist boat that was only on the water for an hour. Those images that people are used to now from natural history programmes on the BBC see virtually everything that these mammals do. But the crews will be there for months and hundreds of hours of filming will take place before the spectacular breaches –which everyone on the boat I was on would have loved to have seen (including me) but the chances of which were probably less than zero. At the same time a mother would not be playing around with a young calf in tow. Such antics are for the young and unattached or the large males with nothing else to do.

So the pictures are more a representation of what any visitor is likely to see, so don’t get your hopes up to much – although I was pleased to see what we did.

I did get the feeling that we were bothering the mother and calf. It was the same pair we saw about 5 or 6 times during about 30 minutes. On two occasions the mother took her offspring down to the depths, possibly to get away from us. At the same time we were only there for a short time and we might well have been the only boat that had bothered that particular pair of creatures over the course of the season.

At the same time at least we weren’t trying to kill them and by all accounts the community in Golfo Nuevo is growing year on year. The whales that you are likely to see in the bay is the Southern Right Whale (Eubaleena australis). Orcas (killer whales) are also in the region but not on the day I was there.

As for the elephant seals the time of my visit was after the mating season and what we saw on the beach were mothers and their calves from this year. The males had finished the fighting over territory and harems and had left. The Peninsula Valdes is a National Park so there are restrictions on how close visitors can get to the animals. Again understandable for both sets of animals. The marine creatures have to be protected from the human animals and the human animals have to be protected from their own stupidity. Taking a selfie with a male elephant seal in full mating fighting form would be interesting.

So those pictures come with distance but, hopefully, give an impression of the scene in the beginning of December.

Useful Information

There are a number of agencies that run these tours from Puerto Madryn, with prices that are, more or less, the same. There might be some variation but whether it is worth the time spent to save a couple of pound is worth it is debatable. I just took the suggestion from the hostel I was staying in – all I had to do was pay and be ready at 07.15 in the morning to be picked up in the tour minibus.

Costs – December 2018

All day bus tour, plus an hour’s boat excursion to attempt to see the whales = A$3,550 (about £75.00)

Added to this is the cost of entrance to the National Park = A$520 (about £11.00)

Also, the land on which the elephant seals congregate is private (although within a National Park) and there is an expectation that visitors will eat in their restaurant. A little bit overpriced but quite good nonetheless. Some people brought a picnic and although there were long faces they were allowed to stay but other guides might be more forthright than the one leading our tour. So think about adding, more or less, another A$500. Not a cheap day but if you are lucky you will see quite a lot.

Apart from the marine animals the bird life is quite prolific and there are also chances to see armadillos (we saw one), guanacos, and choique (a breed of rhea – large, flightless bird) amongst others.

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