Peninsula Valdez and Doradilla Preserve near Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Continuing our travels in Argentina: March 2023. We are on the Argentinan Atlantic Coast again. This time we are traveling North towards Buenos Aires from Camarones. Our family has been on the road in our campers since receiving them out of port December, 23, 2022. In January, we traveled South from Buenos Aires central to Necochea and then cut across the center of Argentina to the fantastic lakes of Siete Lagos, then South to Rio Gallegos.

Mike on the beach

Now, we are returning chased by wind and cold out of Southern Patagonia; we did not venture to Ushuaia because of bad weather. Here near Punta Norte, the Northern most point of the National Parque Valdez, we are enjoying light winds, some rain, some sun, highs in the 20’s Celsius. We came during March specifically to see Orcas. The Orcas that feed on Sea Lion young in nurseries on the beaches in the National Parque Valdez.

Niles Homeschooling

Through a sweet introduction from a Argentinan fellow traveller, named Miquel, to a local tour guide, named Cesar, we got very good direction regarding how to time our visit to the park. We were invited to Cesar’s house in Puerto Madryn to have tea and plan our days near the park and maximize our luck in seeing some Orcas. He gave us a 25% chance for success because the Orcas have a 600 kilometer range.

Well, the next day, we got a gruesome show. We decided to go straight to Punta Norte hours before high tide as is recommended. High tide was just after 1700 on 3/16/2023. Along with about 100 other tourists from around the globe, we waited. Just as a storm was starting to threaten our resolve, a black dorsal fin came in and out of view to the South of the Mirador (lookout) area.

Cesar had shown us a film of Orca’s attacking a Right Whale through exhausting it and then biting and holding. During our tea, he had said that the Right Whales wouldn’t be around because it’s not their season. Not until May. We were slow to believe what we were seeing at Punta Norte because there are not “supposed” to be Right whales here in March at Peninsula Valdez.

An Orca chasing one or two or more Right Whales (ballena francia australs) a mother and calf along the coast toward open sea, perhaps to the rest of his pod. The Right Whales located by sight of their breaches and blow spouts were swimming close to one another. The Orca’s dorsal fin crested for each of their breathes just behind and alongside when they were being herded towards the point.

How many whales do you see? The Orca is the pointy dorsal fin going up and down.

At times they broke direction but it seemed that the Orca then organized them towards the point again. At first, it seemed that there was just one Right Whale and then as the show seemed more directed towards the point and open sea, there seemed to be blow holes going double time with one black dorsal fin in chase.

Another tourist observer told me she had seen a pod of Orcas, 6 strong, patrolling the coast at Punta Norte the day before. She didn’t see them feed on Sea Lions. The German woman and I imagined that the Orca was driving the Right Whales to his pod waiting at the point but this is pure speculation. We also wondered if the pod had seen the whales the day before and planned this drive out of Golfo Nueva toward the Punta Norte. Also, just pure speculation. We were both wanting to know more about what we had seen. It sure wasn’t the “stranding” hunting method Orcas use to kill baby Sea Lions. Somehow, what we saw was more disturbing.

Here is an ID guide to the known Orcas of Peninsula Valdez as of 2022. We were too far away to ID our Orca sighting but I suspect it was one of the bigger ones. Cesar says their dorsal fins are two meters tall. Terrifying. Also, I found a research article regarding the Orca’s interaction data from 1975 to about 2000. I’ve attached a link to download the information. Now my Google feed is exploding with Orca articles killing large whales but still, the greatest killer of balleen whales are high speed cargo ships.

We camped in a windbreak of dunes along the Doradilla Nature Preserve area of the Argentinan Atlantic Coast. On the beach, we found live and dead juvenile penguins, dead and live sea lions, and two dead whales an adult and calf. One around 45 feet long, one about 12 feet. Both had a rusted baile weight wire twisted through to form a loop through a puncture on the right side of their tail, like an earing.   Cesar has told us the metal loop was likely used by biologists who would have taken necropsy samples as all whale deaths are studied here.

Adult Right Whale on Golipe Beach, Argentina

We met two Americans who have been traveling for 4 years. They shared their inspirational lifestyle with us but because weather and the Guardaparques both were not friendly to kite boarding on the gulf they moved on. I hope to meet up with them further North. I enjoyed walking the beach with them comparing stories and theories about what we have been learning by traveling the coast of Argentina.

Kristen had been told, for instance, that the penguins can recover from traumatic injuries if conditions for rest are available. This made us hopeful for a juvenile Magellanic Penguin who seemed to be convalescing on the beach with what seemed to be linear scarring across its abdomen. Now, 3 days into our stay on this beach, Mike and I walked down to check on him. He is still there but looks a little more perky, and is molting around the linear marks as well as his whole body. This let us see that there isn’t fishing line wrapped around him which has been occupying my thoughts at night. It’s the only thing we could possibly do anything about.

Here are photos from a scientific article showing the molting process of a juvenile Magellanic penguin. Ours is in the gray sullen looking phase, middle photo.

Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia 26(3): 202–206.
September 2018
Magellanic Penguins

Now my Google feed is exploding with Orca articles killing large whales but still, the greatest killer of balleen whales are ships. Visit this website for ways you can direct your shipping and cruising dollars to companies that observe voluntary speed reductions in areas of whale sighting (only west coast of US at this time).

Well, if you made it to the end of this post, you have a good attention span. I sure love putting these experiences and thoughts down. As always, I send out my love to family and friends who we are missing. And I encourage you to do less buying and more experiencing!

The Skunk and the Owl

This story comes from our travels in Argentina:

We climbed to the top of the tallest rock formation jutting up from river rock covered valley. The uniquely high and squared angles of the towers could be seen far down the road. The blocks appeared neatly stacked in the distance but when on them, we needed to climb many smaller rocks crumpled around the base. The goal was the arch near the top made of three angular rocks; we could see from the road.

The arch faced the valley and was the shelter from the full sun. I smelled skunk as we approached it. It seemed wrong to smell skunk so high and far from the road. Why would a skunk be up here? I’ve not smelled skunk when it didn’t come near a road, dog or my bike.

In the arch, was a Sancturario with offerings of bottled water, candles and a framed painting shattered and faded, maybe of a woman. The offerings sat in a triangular structure 2 feet high, made of wood and protected by metal sheeting. Extra wood lay around it, maybe of previous structures.

To support myself entering the arch, I has to use certain key holds to balance. We noticed the hand hold rocks were smoothed from touch in the exact places we put our hands for support. This space has been a destination for people a long, long time.

The worn rocks hand holds would takes thousands of hand touches to smooth like this. How many hundreds of years had people been climbing this place to look out, offer and wonder? It’s the place from which you can hunt, plan and see the weather. I thought of a presentation in Bogota, Colombia about how indigenous sacred places were co-opted during Spanish colonization to make conversation to Catholicism seem less foreign. Was this one of those places?

We climbed above the arch and sat on the top. There were bird droppings on the pointed rocks with views. Mike had found stones worked into sharp edges down below. Our dog Gypsy climbed up all the way except for the top rocks. We took photos of all of us there, silhouetted against an intensely blue and cloudless sky. Nothing above us on the horizon.

We climbed down, noting the smooth handholds on the dark hard rock. How many hands,  how many years. It’s a human need to climb a rock placed like this in the land.

As we came again through the arch, again the skunk smell. This time we noticed one more offering near the structure. An owl pellet! A large, gray oval with one small mammal bone coming out one end. How long does a skunk’s spray last?

The smell was on the rocks. We imagined a battle here. The owl brought the skunk from below? The skunk was released briefly in the Sancturario, ran but had no escape. He sprayed and fought. The owl won. The owl offered the pellet.

Or, it could have been a longer event. There are many hiding spaces in the arch. The skunk may have spent quite a bit of time fending off the owl. Can an owl eat a whole skunk? Where is the rest? Isn’t that bone too small to be a skunk’s? Maybe, he got away.

Homeschooling on the road

We are experimenting with our family by traveling for a year. After living the pandemic 2019-2022 in Butte, Montana and the Trump administration culture wars we were interested in striking out to see new lands. Our family is a dad, mom, and three teens.

Niles and I in Tierra de Colores near Cuevo de Las Manos

One teen absolutely did not want to travel with us. She tested out to earn her diploma before we left when she would have been a Senior and started looking for work and a place to live. At seventeen she is living independently which has been her personality’s will since she was 18 months and decidedly said, “I’ll dress myself!”

Niles and Vivian at the vibrant Tierra de Colores

My 18 year old daughter, Vivian, graduated highschool and suggested the trip to be a gap year for her and that we all do it together. We, as a family, decided on “doing the PanAm highway”. It’s a route a person can travel North to South or South to North in a vehicle except for the Darian Gap between Colombia and Panama. And, because the highway goes up the West coast of South America in general, it skips Brasil which is the only country that doesn’t speak Spanish as it’s primary language. Six months into our travels, we all are learning Spanish and, I think, 1will continue to learn after this trip.

Due to many factors, we have changed our route plan and have been spending most of our time in Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina with brief trips into Chile. We are 6 months into the travel time, about 3 months have been in our campers.

My son is the one who falls into the need for traveling and studying on the road to complete his Freshman year. Two factors influenced his selection of homeschool curriculum on the road. 1: He wanted to return to Butte for his Sophomore year which had the consequence of needing to adhere to Montana Board of Education rules for curriculum. 2: Cost, BYU was slightly less expensive than Foster, the only two online accredited schools recognized by Montana.

Nile’s English course instructions

Currently, we are being pushed by foul weather in Patagonia, North towards Mendoza, Argentina. This has meant revisiting some of the same spots we hit going South. Today 3/6/23, we will go to Tierra de Colores in Parque National Patagonia. We had skipped it on the way down to visit Cueva de Las Manos. No dogs allowed, so Gypsy will wait for us in the truck outside the park.

Niles found a Guanaco skull in this cliff under many layers of fossilized pack rat dung.

We are camped next to the giant windy lake where just one month ago we buried my daughter’s pot to prepare for the border crossing to Chile after camping here for the night. I never thought I’d actively support her smoking but we have seen her be able to regulate her mood with it and without it. Many people we have met on this trip smoke instead of drink or do both. All has been in moderation. Different culture.

Patching together Wifi access after Google Fi cut off in El Calafate. School has been an access problem for Niles.

A camp behind a gas station with WiFi
I think Niles should have no problem identifying challenges in his life and how he is addressing them.
PE in El Chalten, Patagonia
Exploring Cuevo de Las Manos
Placing a board to close the broken window in our truck, broken by wind.
Father and son bonding
Dog and boy bonding

Today we made a contract with Niles to allow us to check his work before submitting it to his teachers and we have as parents gotten deeper into his curriculum to help him crawl out of a couple of really poor grades. Luckily, they are due to poor access and time allowed for assignments rather than intelligence. He has the goal of returning to the states and bring with buddies as a Sophomore so, he is motivated.