THERE is a fat, goateed man in a leather jacket standing far too close to a Magellanic penguin. He is giggling nervously – the man, not the penguin – and slowly extending a finger towards the animal’s soft white belly. Surely, I am thinking, he is not actually going to poke this poor bird, which has just swum thousands of miles from the Antarctic to join its colony here at Punta Tombo, a thin, chilly strand of Patagonian desert on the coastal edge of Argentina.
There are signs everywhere reminding tourists not to harass the exhausted penguins as they return to the nests they have used for countless mating seasons. But this guy goes ahead and prods it, apparently to amuse or impress his wife. The penguin brays like an angry donkey, and my girlfriend, looking on, goes ballistic. “Not cool!” she screams at the man in English, her Spanish being insufficient to her outrage. The couple seem to understand the tone, if not the meaning. They look briefly abashed then move along, laughing and feigning nonchalance.
Not cool indeed. There are idiots everywhere, and there is no legislating for them, but Argentines in general don’t seem overly fussed about the prevailing global fashion for “green” issues and ideas. The bulk of the population is concentrated in distant Buenos Aires, where environmental concerns barely register on a long list of public grievances that is currently dominated by the country’s skyrocketing rate of inflation. The government, meanwhile, tends to be more focused on growth then conservation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and the national park at Punta Tombo attracts more paying visitors every year, though every year there are fewer penguins for them to see here. Faded billboards along the dusty highway still advertise the one million Magellanics that used to arrive on these shores in the austral springtime (their species is named after the Portuguese explorer who first noted them on his voyage of 1520, though his shipboard naturalist misidentified them as “strange geese”).
Marine scientists, however, say the number has fallen below 200,000 in the last decade or so, as oil discharged from passing ships coats and kills many of the penguins en route, and industrial fishing eats into their food supply. There are various laws in place to protect this land and seascape, but the vastness and emptiness of the territory makes it tough to police. Also, given that president Cristina Fernandez De Kirchner has her own Patagonian home in the glacier-ringed southern city of Calafate, her administration has been remarkably slow to capitalise on the eye-popping natural wonders of the region. Eco-tourism remains a relatively new and tentative development in Argentina, advanced in isolation by local pioneers.
Up the coast, on the far side of the Peninsula Valdes, a pair of fifth-generation sheep farmers have part-converted their homestead into a guest house, and one corner of their land into a marine reserve. We have only just pulled up to the Estancia Rincon Chico when owner Maria Olazabal bundles us into a jeep to go and watch elephant seals having group sex on a private beach. This is how they do it, explains her husband Augustin Ayusa, who is crouching behind a rock with a pair of binoculars, though the animals are so close and so huge that he hardly needs to use them. The alpha males, in particular, are monstrous and hilarious – burping, groaning blobs with crinkled and cartoonish proboscis. Each one weighs a tonne and looks like Jabba the Hutt in a gas mask, but somehow manages to keep a harem of up to 150 smaller and prettier females, all of whom he will try to impregnate while fending off challenges from young and scrappy bulls.
There is one failed contender lying dead in front of us, a flock of southern giant petrels stripping meat from his open ribcage. Just a few metres further, a pregnant female is giving birth, right now, this very second. The placenta splats onto the sand, and the birds quickly gobble that too, as the wet black baby crawls up and under his mother’s protective blubber. Elsewhere on the beach, the orgy continues. We are privileged to see all this at once, Ayusa reminds us. Their circle of life may appear to be a shameless and grotesque public spectacle, but these animals spend 9 or 10 months of their annual migration cycle under the sea and well out of sight. Apart from their brief spells on dry land for birthing, fighting, and fornication, their movements remain something of a mystery. And this beach happens to be their chosen site for the only seasonal elephant seal colony north of Antarctica. “They were here long before us,” says Olazabal over lamb stew back at the ranch. “It’s more their property than ours.”
She and Ayuda were recently commissioned to tag some 5000 seals with satellite trackers for research purposes, adding what they call a “third branch” to the work of the estancia. “Sheep, tourism, and conservation,” says Ayuda, listing their latter-day duties in order of priority. They are both descended from the first European families to settle the peninsula in the late 19th century – there are weapons, maps and tools from those days hanging on the walls of the main house, along with photos of a few native Tehuelche people who helped them work this land before disappearing into extinction. Looking out the window of our boutique-rustic bedroom I can only see a couple of sheep, but Ayuda has told me there are 3000 out there, one or two per acre, lonely wisps of white on the rolling green interior.
From an ocean-facing room, he says, I might instead look out into the blue, and see an orca swallowing a sea lion. He and his wife grew up with such sights, and came to think of them as normal, but they later learned that most people don’t, and therein lies their current business model. The next day, we re-cross the empty peninsula to Puerto Piramides, a frontier strip of shops and houses between the desert and the sea that has lately become a whale watching boom town.
Anticipating the needs and tastes of nature-loving foreigners, local entrepreneur Alejandro Avampini designed the region’s first eco-hostel on a nearby hillside, and named it Del Nomade. A wanderer himself, Avampini is rarely around, leaving two girls called Laura to run the place, though one calls herself Lala to reduce confusion. It was tough to build, they tell us. “Alejandro wanted solar panels and a system for recycling the water,” says Lala, “but contractors here don’t really have the know-how. There was a lot of trial and error.” The result, says Laura, was worth it. “Most of our guests are from Europe and they love the concept. But we’re slowly attracting more Argentines. I think we’re learning, as a country.”
For such a small town, Puerto Piramides is apparently big enough for at least two reputable companies to bring boatloads of tourists within soaking distance of migrating southern right whales. Or, says Lala, we could just head out to Playa Pardelas, a windy promontory where there tends to be more whales than people at this time of year. Sure enough, we get there to find a dozen or more breaching, spuming leviathans passing like steam-trains across the bay. We sit on the edge of the land, with our feet dangling in space, eating sandwiches and waving to them. With every roll they seem to wave back, and there are no other humans present to confirm or refute this – which only adds to selfish pleasure of a moment like this, and the rare joy of being so outnumbered.