As a child I watched a documentary of an orca propelling itself onto a beach in order to catch a seal pup. After this epic feat the orca then elegantly wriggled down the shingle beach and back into the sea with it's prize. From that moment it has been a dream of mine to see this happen. Valdes Peninsula, Patagonia, Argentina is the place where this extraordinary behaviour occurs. This protected UNESCO semi arid area is home not only to these specialised orcas but to a whole host of marine life, a variety of bird life and some rather special and unusual mammals.
As with any wildlife, sightings are dependent on the time of year, patience and a dose of good fortune. Southern right whales can be seen from June through until December. According to the locals, September is one of the best months to see Southern right whales. During this time they breed in the Nuevo Gulf, on the South Western side of the peninsula. Hundreds gather and can be seen from the cliffs of Puerto Piramides or by taking a cruise from Puerto Madryn or Puerta Pramides.
Magellanic penguins are seen from September to April at Caleta Valdes and Puerta Norte, whilst elephant seals can be seen at Punta Cantor and Punta Delgada from September through until March. The best spot for Sea lions is Punta Norte and Punta Cantor from November to May. The breeding of the seal pups is what attracts the Orcas. The best chance to view them hunting is from October to November and from January to March. Punta Norte is the most popular 'attack zone' but they also attack at Punta Cantor. There is only one family of orcas in this area that are known to have adapted this specialised hunting technique. The orcas work together. Some of the pod distract the seals by smacking their tails in and out of the water whilst one sneaks in for the kill. To stand a chance of seeing this action you need to give yourself plenty of time as the conditions need to be perfect for the orcas. Ideally they need a calm ocean, a southerly wind and 'beach hunting' only occurs two to three hours either side of high tide as the rocky reefs are exposed at low tide making beaching impossible.
Despite good conditions, luck was not on our side this time and we had four days of patiently scanning the oceans with no orca action. We met some photographers who visited at the same time last year and saw orcas on two out of three days with one beach attack. Wild animals will be wild and there is a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time!
Although I didn't see the orca I had journeyed all this way for, I did not leave disappointed. The bird life on Peninsula Valdes is abundant. Large flocks of Chilean Flamingos gather on the beaches at Isla de Los Pajaros. There are turkey vultures galore, the lesser rhea and the elegant crested tinamou to name just a few. We were also fortunate to see a grey fox feeding in the early morning on a sheep carcass. Guanacos, a close relative of the llama, are found throughout the peninsula in large herds. The highlight for me however, was the larger haired armadillo, an amazingly curious little creature that trots about in such a cartoon like fashion that you can't help but laugh when you see one!
If you have an interest in wildlife then Peninsula Valdes is worth a visit. Be sure to take the time of year into account and to give yourself plenty of time. I will certainly be back to try again for my orca/seal action!