Valdez Peninsula


Wildlife spectaculars go on all year at Valdez Peninsula, a privately owned U.N. World Heritage Site run cooperatively with the government.

Some 7,000 southern sea lions, permanent residents, wake from beachside snoozes from January to March, females to give birth and nurture young and males to shake their manes and battle bloodily amid deafening bedlam for mates to start the next generation. Handsome, formidable orca or killer whales with exquisite timing arrive in March to feed on sea lion youngsters taking their first sea plunge.

In June, southern right whales once exploited for meat and oil—called “right” by whalers because they conveniently stayed afloat when killed, making them the “right” quarry—arrive peacefully to breed and give birth in quiet gulfs and inlets.

Some 30,000 southern elephant seals, here all year, gather to bellow and breed (undeterred by partners’ foul breath) September through mid-October, males with hugely enlarged proboscises which suggest their name and are resonance boxes for harsh roars of their threat displays.

Southern fur seals give birth in crowded colonies. Sea otters splash up on wave-exposed rocky coasts. Five species of cormorants duck under for silvery fish. American, austral, and blackish oystercatchers patrol shores of multihued pebbles. Four kinds of steamer ducks— flightless, Falkland, flying, and chubut—frantically flail their wings when startled and paddle away like small steamboats. From October to March, penguins strut around territorial burrows (their major breeding area is on nearby Punta Tombo).

Dolphins of several species swim among diving terns while onshore a half-dozen kinds of gulls and plovers feed, all watched hungrily by southern giant petrels and predatory skuas.

Haughty, rust-colored guanacos graze. So do rheas, mostly on greenery, berries, and seeds, females abandoning parental duties as soon as they lay eggs, males incubating them while looking for another female to repeat the process. Zealous males gather huge flocks of chicks—whatever they can round up, sometimes 100 or more of varying ages.

Elegant crested-tinamous, like miniature rheas with similar foraging and polygynous habits, appear in family groups from August to January.

Maras, related to domestic guinea pigs but looking like faintly bewildered short-eared rabbits— also called Patagonian hares or cavies—thrive or dwindle depending on food supply, predation, and cyclical ailments. When numerous they socialize by the dozens around burrows, unafraid of visitors.

Hairy armadillos covered with bony shell-plates (their hair is sparse) burrow and climb trees, larger animals mostly nocturnal, smaller ones, called pichis, diurnal but shy.

Get there by international jet to Buenos Aires, thence by domestic air or bus to Trelew, which has good accommodations, as does nearby Puerto Madryn. Car rental or guided tours available at both (car rental best for leisurely exploring). Lodging and camping are available as well on Valdez at Puerto Piramides. Good viewing points are Punta Norte for sea lions, elephant seals, fur seals, and orcas, February–March; Caleta Valdez for year-round elephant seals; Isla de los Pajaros for breeding birds—kelp gulls, neotropic cormorants, many others (telescope available)—flamingos on tidal flats; whales in clear, warm Golfo Nuevo, Golfo San Jose, and Caleta Valdez, June–December (August best). Whale-watching trips can be arranged at Puerto Piramides. Visitors’ information center is at the reserve entrance. Weather is pleasant October through April.

Threats include ever-growing fishing which drowns wildlife in nets and has diminished wildlife food sources (the South Atlantic fishery is the world’s fastest-growing); pollution from a huge aluminum smelter in Puerto Madryn; and oil slicks from tanker spills and ballast-cleaning which kill penguins, cormorants, seals, fish—all marine-oriented wildlife, along with their food supply. El Niño occurrences can bring torrential rains which upset nesting.

 Sunset-plumaged roseate spoonbills are named for uniquely spatulate bills that they swing back and forth to snap up fish, crustaceans and large insects in mangrove marshes and lagoons. They’re equally useful for males seeking to attract mates by clapping these bills resoundingly to show off ability to gather useful nesting material. Once endangered by popularity of their feathers in ladies’ fans, they’re now protected over much of their range in coastal South America, the Caribbean and southern United States, threatened mainly by habitat destruction for tourist development.

Sunset-plumaged roseate spoonbills are named for uniquely spatulate bills that they swing back and forth to snap up fish, crustaceans and large insects in mangrove marshes and lagoons. They’re equally useful for males seeking to attract mates by clapping these bills resoundingly to show off ability to gather useful nesting material. Once endangered by popularity of their feathers in ladies’ fans, they’re now protected over much of their range in coastal South America, the Caribbean and southern United States, threatened mainly by habitat destruction for tourist development.

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Iguazú National Park protects one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls, some 9,000 feet (2,700 m) around its J-shaped length with hundreds of cascades dropping up to 269 feet (80+ m),and with it 255 square miles (660 km2) of subtropical forest and a prodigious list of flora and fauna. Both are shared across an international border with Brazil. Flora include 60 kinds of orchids; among 68 mammal species, little and red brocket deer, white-eared opossums, and (warier) jaguars, ocelots, pumas, margays, bush dogs, 422 bird species including five kinds of toucans, black-and white hawk-eagles, and thousands of great dusky swifts darting in and out of the falls; and an astounding butterfly and moth array. Both countries have trails and good views (see also p.530 under BRAZIL). The border is easily crossed with a passport. Puerto Iguazú, with hotels, taxis, car rentals, is a two-hour drive from Buenos Aires, or fly to Iguazú International Airport. (Driving here is not for the faint-hearted.) Threats include regional population growth; tourist-laden helicopters roaring overhead; logging to replace forests with grazing, cash crops, and paper pulp plantings. Best views are mornings and afternoons November–March.

Los Glaciares National Park in the southern Argentinian Andes has some 250 glaciers, the largest—Upsala—230 square miles (595 km2), largest ice mantle outside Antarctica. Guanacos graze, gray foxes prey on rodents. Some 100 bird species include torrent ducks, Patagonian tinamous, Magellanic woodpeckers, and nesting Andean condors. Visitation is mostly November–March and it’s not easy then, from Rio Gallegos, a five-hour rocky drive to El Calafate, with limited lodging, thence by bus or taxi to the glaciers. Views are magnificent.

 Great dusky swifts astonishingly fly headlong through plunging cataracts of Iguazú waterfalls (Iguaçu in Brazil)—but these little birds are aerodynamic wonders. Swifts are fastest birds in the world, with long, narrow, pointed wings, feeding on aerial insects, able even to mate, sleep and spend nights on the wing. They cut through the falls at such great speeds, turning on their sides momentarily to present almost no water resistance, that they are unaffected by the torrent. On the other side they cling to vertical cliffs with curved, sharp toenails supported by tarsal calluses and rigid tails and build cuplike nests glued together with spittle from extra-large salivary glands, safe from predators, for no one else can do what they do.

Great dusky swifts astonishingly fly headlong through plunging cataracts of Iguazú waterfalls (Iguaçu in Brazil)—but these little birds are aerodynamic wonders. Swifts are fastest birds in the world, with long, narrow, pointed wings, feeding on aerial insects, able even to mate, sleep and spend nights on the wing. They cut through the falls at such great speeds, turning on their sides momentarily to present almost no water resistance, that they are unaffected by the torrent. On the other side they cling to vertical cliffs with curved, sharp toenails supported by tarsal calluses and rigid tails and build cuplike nests glued together with spittle from extra-large salivary glands, safe from predators, for no one else can do what they do.

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