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Posted by Tim on May 9, 2005
The Orcas of Peninsula Valdes

We arrived in Puerto Madryn (fresh from our first-class bus ride) on the morning of Tuesday, March 29th. We disembarked, and set about finding ourselves a place to stay, eventually finding the surprisingly nice El Gualicho Youth Hostel. No sooner had we thrown down our bags than we were off again, to find someone to recommend us some good excursions. You see, Puerto Madryn is a pretty enough town, I suppose, but the reason most people visit it is because of its proximity to places like Peninsula Valdés.

Peninsula Valdes

Peninsula Valdés is an enormous nature reserve, one so large you can locate it on almost any globe: it's that little thing sticking out of the lower right-hand side of South America. It's a barren place, like all of Patagonia: on the 2-hour ride out from Puerto Madryn, the gravel road you drive along seems to always reach beyond the horizon, and on either side you're surrounded by an endless sea of scrub-brush. But, remarkably, this chilly, arid place is home to a bewildering variety of fauna: sea lions, elephant seals, armadillos, guanacos (wild relavites of the domesticated llama and alpaca), giant flightless birds called rheas, and of course our beloved penguins. Between June and September, massive southern right whales (named by 19th-century whalers: they were the "right" whales to hunt) breed in the waters off the coast around the entire perimeter of the peninsula. And then there's the orcas.

Orcas are often known in the states as "killer whales", a term which our guide Mauriceo disliked. He'd grown up in Puerto Madryn, and spent most of his life on the barren peninsula. He'd apprenticed at the Punta Norte research station, and he knew all of the orcas by name.

Yes, by name. The scientists at Punta Norte named them. Orcas, it turns out, can be uniquely identified by the shape of their dorsal fin, and at the peninsula there has been a relatively consistent population of 30 or so orcas for the last 35 years. There are thousands and thousands of orcas in the world, and only about 30 of them live in the waters off of the Peninsula Valdés. The fact that there are so few of them makes them even more spectacular, because these orcas do something unique.

The Special Orcas of Punta Norte

The name "killer whale" is actually a garbling of what they were originally called: "whale killer". Pods of killer whales have been filmed attacking and killing even the mighty blue whale, the largest creature in the world. An orca is several times the size of that most-feared predator, the great white shark, and it's smarter, too: a great white has a brain the size of your thumb, whereas the brain of an orca is many times the size of that of an adult human. Like orcas, great whites feed on seals and sea lions. But if you're a seal, there's a foolproof way to avoid being eaten by a great white: stay out of the water.

But that doesn't work against orcas. Not on Peninsula Valdés, anyway.

You're probably seen the footage: it was first aired in the Trials of Life series, and has been filmed and shown innumerable times since. Sea lions play with their pups on the shore, when suddenly an orca emerges from the water. It's massive, black, and gleaming wet, a nuclear submarine set among the seals. It rides the wave right up onto the shore, snatches up a sea lion pup, and then rolls back out into the water with the next wave.

If you've ever seen footage of such an attack (something called "intentional stranding" by researchers), I can guarantee you that it was filmed at Punta Norte, on Peninsula Valdés. And if Mauriceo was sitting next to you when you watched it, he could have told you the orca's name.

There's only 30 of them, and it seems there always has been. As some pass away, others are born, and the population stays constant. And the newborn orcas will one day learn this technique themselves. Because it isn't instinctive: in fact, their every instict will tell them not to get stranded on the beach. They have to be taught this, so that they can teach the next generation. And if they don't, there will be no one that will, and intentional stranding will disappear among the orcas.

This is a special group, these orcas. Let me just introduce you to one of them before I finish this entry.

They Named Her Melanie

In 1975, the then-new research station at Punta Norte was in the process of identifying and naming all the orcas. A new juvenile was spotted on April 14, one a bit on the smallish side. Its dorsal fin was curved, a characteristic of a female orca, and so she was named Melanie.

Melanie's brother was the leader of the pod, a massive orca named Bernardo. He provided food for her, and taught her the "intentional stranding" method of hunting. He and Melanie were both wildly successful with this method, and this did not go unnoticed.

The next part of the story is, frankly, astonishing. Wildlife activists, it seems, were concerned that the orcas might be too good, and that they would eliminate the entire sea lion colony. They pressured the Wildlife Conservation Service, who in May 1976 requested the local Coast Guard shoot the orcas. To kill the orcas in the name of conserving nature. Wow.

Bernardo escaped unscathed, but Melanie wasn't so lucky. She was hit in the dorsal fin, a wound which would permenantly alter its shape. Fortunately for her, the public was horrified by the whole affair, and the orca-hunt was quickly called off.

An orca is a long-lived animal. Bernado hasn't been heard from since 1993, and is presumed dead. Melanie, though, now over 40 years old, still hunts the waters and beaches of the peninsula. Alone.

Back in the early 1980s, Melanie reached adult size. In fact, she was huge. Moreover, her dorsal fin (now over 5 feet high) seemed to be ramrod-straight now. Or rather, it would have been, were it not bent sharply where the bullet had passed through it. The researchers, it turned out, had been mistaken all along. In April 1981, they erased "Melanie" from the books and wrote him back in as "Mel".

There's a fantastic museum in Puerto Madryn called the "EcoCentro". There, hanging from the ceiling, is a full-scale model of Mel. If you look closely, you'll be able to see where his dorsal fin is bent. That's his gunshot wound, one he bears to this day.

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May 9, 2005 at 7:17pm
Oh… *whales*! Now this is just too much… Waaaaaaahhhhhh!
May 9, 2005 at 8:56pm
hey guys sorry i havent wrote for awhile but things have been really crazy. i hope you guys are doing well. i will try to talk to you guys again soon. love you both seana
Jessica the hedgehog
May 9, 2005 at 9:29pm
Seana! Yea! :):)

We've missed you so, so much. I know things are a bit crazy right now on your end…but I just want you to know that we're both thinking of you lots…especially these last few weeks. And we both love you very, very, very incredibly much. You mean the world to me. Always remember that, ok?

Don't forget, if you get the chance, that you can email me anytime. I know I'm not there and I know I can't do much, but I'm always here to listen. I promise.

I miss you, and I love you, and I have so much faith in you. Tim does too, he's here with me now as I write this comment to you and he feels exactly the same way. You mean so much to both of us.

*many hugs from your little sister*

May 9, 2005 at 9:58pm
Wow! The kids are studying whales at school right now. Synchronicity. :) Awesome to know more about them – and how smart they are.

May 10, 2005 at 7:39am
U both smell like Pea Soup…and the "China" says meow to you Timmy the Whale Boy
May 10, 2005 at 10:47am
wow. what a DIFFERENT type of entry than usual. i love the fact that you are traveling and learning new things so that we can learn about the world through you as well. very educational entry.

as a side note, ray and i frequently catch up on your website and we both are incredibly jealous of the experience that you are having. argentina is now topping my list of places that i would like to visit.

Sister Soldier (The Post Hog)
May 10, 2005 at 11:29am
I'm going to make these bad pun before anyone else does… Looks like you two are having a "whale" of a time! I guess you can say that this trip has been a real "killer." Talk about dancing to the "Mel" ody of life! OK I'm "fin"ished with my cheesy puns (for now)…
May 14, 2005 at 5:53pm
sorry i haven't post sooner but as seana says things have been crazy with me also at the new job more detail on journal love from all and keep on having fun

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