It’s a day at the zoo for us eager little kids, we’ve wrangled together another guy from the hostel to join us on a tour which is an easy way of making a cattle herded bus turn into a private car. The cheesy tour groups are now about the same cost for us as having our own private driver for the day thanks to our extra friend sharing the cost. Something’s a little wrong though, we have a cultural about face in monumental scale, our Argentinian driver is here bang on 7:30am as promised and our Swiss hostel mate is running late. This is about as culturally discordant as possible and we’re not sure how this bodes for the day at all, we’ll see soon enough I’m sure. We’re touring peninsular Valdes which is where Puerto Piramides lies to catch sight of the wildlife on offer, the pre-African ‘diet’ warm up to our upcoming safari adventure.
There’s a hope on the horizon for this day, this is the place where Orcas beach themselves deliberately to snatch seals from the shore, a rare phenomenon that apparently has only been observed by seven individual animals ever… so, it’s rare. None the less this is the time of year that it happens and we’re timing our run for high tide, also when it’s most possible. Bundled in our little Renault we skip off down the road and into more repeated barren wilderness just in case we haven’t seen enough of this type of landscape in our past few weeks of bus rides. In pretty short order though we’re pulling up the car all over the place to spot an Armadillo and other little critters like, vultures, guanacos and mara: a really weird looking mega huge rabbit that looks a little dog like, we’re getting our moneys worth already.
First proper stop is Lago Chico, a salt lake. We’ve seen a few salt lakes so far but never been able to walk on one until now. The soft pink tone reminiscent of delicate flakes on the tables of posh restaurants is quite novel, enticing us to walk dreamily into the world of Salvador Dali over a deceptively hard packed salt floor. This lake is officially the lowest land point in South America at 42m below sea level, an apt tick-box after our recent jaunts into the high reaching Andes, Argentina does have it all if you care to look; high and low. This salt brick is a whopping 25m deep at the centre of the lake, a small lake really but standing in the midst of the saline rock it feels huge. Amazing as it is, there’s no Orcas here so off we shuffle.
Finally we reach the ocean and the benefits of a private guide reveal themselves in the form of: jumping over roped off paths and past ‘no entry’ signs, seems we’re getting the locals pass. We’re on a headland in the blustery warm breeze coming from the west looking distantly down to some Elephant Seals far below, nice to see but not exactly an immersive experience yet none of us voice disappointment. Soon enough however we’re stepping over a small fence and plunging down a rough path to the beach, the viewing platform seeming more like a practical joke. We arrive to a beach littered with Elephant Seals baking motionlessly in the sun embodying indulgent laziness like it’s a sport.
We have relatively free reign here, these huge sacks of blubber looking akin to a person wrapped tightly in a sleeping bag lay often in clusters moving only momentarily to burp or fart; such an enviable life. The breeding and foraging season has passed, most of the large males have moved from these shores leaving the colony to lapse into sloth. And burp and fart. This flatulent symphony develops into a comic force, entire bodies tense and pulse for one unimaginably heroic seizure to push out some air often in some vague sense of timing with another; and so music is made. But there’s no Orcas here either so we bid farewell to the symphony of lethargic delights and onto a life more active.
Journeying up the coast we stop at numerous viewpoints to look from a short distance down to Sea Lions and penguins, the diversity of life laid out for us in slow evolution as we venture north. The penguins are a highlight here, the Magellanic Penguins are small and unsurprisingly adorable in their cute awkwardness. On a platform near some nests a couple of penguins make the journey up the small hill to parade right before us, clearly they’re used to humans and really couldn’t care less. Gorgeous, but they’re not Orcas.
Final stop, Punta Norte is the northern tip of the peninsular where the wild of the ocean sweeps around the most outreaching point of land. Walking to the beach is full of anticipation, this is the prime Orca haven. What it is also a haven for it seems is pretty much everything else, Penguins, Sea Lions, Elephant Seals, Cormorants, Great Egrets and who knows what else, the beach is littered with a hodge-podge menagerie of wildlife. The noise is the big thing here, bleats from the seal calves, gutteral roars from the Sea Lion males, sirens from the females and of course farts from the Elephant Seals all boom up from the beach at high volume.
Punta Norte is a sight to behold, it’s just been calving season for the Sea Lions and the social activity is a frenzy of noise and energy. There’s nothing to do but look on and listen to the music, all except for the poor Elephant Seals who always seem to be a little out of tune. We pile back into the car quite exhausted and thoroughly satisfied. We haven’t been privileged with an Orca but we have been privileged none the less. We’ve seen an array of great wildlife but the privilege doesn’t stop there, it’s a good reminder that the Orca doesn’t really matter. On the verge of one of humankind’s most common errors we were looking for the forest but all we were seeing were trees.
As the saying might go, we couldn’t see the Orcas for the Seals, but we could see, we could see everything that we could hope to see. The Orcas retain the mystery and romance that our current perspectives imbue and maybe thats better. One day we might see an Orca, but what’s next in the queue of unappeasable disappointment? We will eternally have an Orca to chase, something out of reach; whether we saw an Orca or not makes little difference in this chase for the etherial. Must we inherently chase things based on their unattainability or should the chase be based on what we need? It seems we had the saying wrong and we’re glad we were able to see the seals for the Orcas.