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Friday, January 4, 2008

THE MARINE SAFARI, PADDLING IN PATAGONIA

These trips take place in the famed roaring forties. As naturalist and writer George Gaylord Simpson said in his classic Attending Marvels “all we had to do was sit down and all of Patagonia will blow past you". 

Some years we find ourselves paddling these trips with little to no wind, day after day. But in 2007 our expedition members awoke nearly every day to building winds and seas, and, more often than not, spent at least part of the day exploring the interior of Peninsula Valdes, where arrowheads, boleador balls, and even human skeletons eroding from the wandering dunes tell the tale of the Tehuelche aboriginals that once called this Patagonia their own.  Herds of guanacos, a large variety of birds, and even a Patagonian viper or two kept the group company on their wind-bound days.

One of our groups this year were lucky enough to discover a beached sei whale - 16 meters long and relatively fresh.  A quick phone call to Mariano Sirioni, the Argentine Whale specialist, brought him and his colleague, Dr. Michael Moore of Woods Hole, to the beach for a necropsy.  Our team was enlisted as very keen recruits to help the biologists with the necropsy.  Blubber and meat was hauled off to allow organ samples to be gathered, and all smaller bones were hauled into the dunes for the armadillos to clean.  The larger bones will be left for the petrels and the sea to clean.  This is only the second sei whale ever to have washed up on the shores of the peninsula, and Sirioni will return in several years for the skeleton. 

A record number of whales were sighted this year - Mariano told the group that over 1100 southern right whales had returned to the peninsula this year - a record.  This population is still growing at 7% per year, and the mothers and calves are still a highlight of this trip.  On one day Dave and Juani and the group counted over 30 pairs of whales while paddling and in front of their camp!  They even saw a rare white calf, which kept them company for several days.

Unfortunately, the biologists have also noted a record number of whale deaths this year, with over 75 dead whales washing up along the shores of the peninsula.  Dr. Moore was hoping to discover the cause of these deaths through his samples, and indicated that a possible early suspect was an abundant red-tide algal bloom the previous summer.

All-in-all the trips were full of lots of laughs, great sunsets, fresh sea food, invigorating swims, and another wonderful Patagonian adventure.  Ah, yes, and don't forget, on these trips you get to sample the great Argentine Malbec wines!

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