Patagonia: The ends of the earth
Although mostly formed by steppe and desert, Patagonia is home to an array of ecosystems, wildlife, and cultures. This remote region has dramatic biodiversity, which includes Torres del Paine, a mountainous national park with a steppe ecosystem in Chile, and Tierra del Fuego, a Subantarctic forest-covered island at the southern tip of Argentina. The wildlife and natural wonders here have attracted the attention of key conservationists who are working to preserve these essential ecosystems.
Peninsula Valdes & Roberto Bubas
On the South Atlantic Coast of Argentina lies Peninsula Valdes. Multitudes of wildlife gather in this small area, which is internationally famous for its migratory southern right whales and orcas who exhibit a unique hunting behavior. Roberto Bubas, a ranger here for decades, has become an important figure due to his interactions with the local orcas. During our visit, we met with Roberto and heard his story about his work. Initially, he tried to catalog individual orcas photographically and had to find a way to get closer than he could from a typically safe distance. The easiest way for him to record these animals was by getting in the water alongside them.
After several successful interactions, the orcas became more comfortable and began to recognize Roberto. He would even throw kelp in the shallows, and they would bring it back to him, as a dog would return a ball. He was able to thoroughly document these orcas and gain an entirely unique insight to their playfulness, social structure, and intelligence. This interaction has been recognized by whale experts around the world and boosted people’s understanding of the region as well as international orca conservation.
Unique Orcas of the Peninsula
Roberto took us to Punta Norte and Caleta Valdes (two places the orcas are known to hunt on the peninsula) to catch a glimpse of them and their unique behavior. In Caleta, an orca stranded itself in the distance as it attempted to catch a small, unsuspecting sea lion that was lounging near the shore. The orca shot out of the water towards its prey, but the sea lion escaped as it clambered up the beach. Although the orcas missed their target, we got a sense of their ingenuity and determination to survive. Their failed hunting attempt, however, forced them to find other feeding opportunities, since they eat at least three sea lions every day.
They began circling the colony, and I was hoping we would get a better view of their hunting behavior. However, the predators did not strike because conditions, more than likely, were not right at that particular time. Since intentional stranding can cause dehydration and eventual death, it is extremely dangerous, and the orcas will only hunt if the water level, waves, currents, and the prey’s location all coincide. They aborted their initial hunting plan and eventually carried on searching the coast for their next meal.
Spending the day with Roberto broadened our understanding of the biological and conservational importance of this peninsula. The orcas and their distinct hunting strategies are one of the biggest reasons for conservation. Since they have adapted so well to this environment and their behavior has only been mastered by a small number of orcas, it is unlikely that outside orcas would be able to survive because the whole ecosystem could fall apart. Approximately nine orcas on earth can use intentional stranding to hunt, according to Roberto, and most likely, all of them live in the waters around this small peninsula. These orcas are a great example of animals that have adapted perfectly to their environment, but their behavior patterns and hunting methods will be lost forever if they are not adequately protected.
The Patagonia Park in southern Chile was founded by conservation pioneer Douglas Tompkins. About ten years ago, he bought a huge parcel of land bordered by two Chilean National Parks. The valley had been decimated by sheep and cows, as they excessively fed on plants and caused disastrous erosion, but Douglas saw its potential as a protected area and began a huge conservation campaign. He engaged local communities, stopped hydroelectric projects, and removed all livestock. Once the last of the sheep and cows were eradicated, the local wildlife rebounded. The guanaco population has exploded, more birdlife is appearing, and puma numbers are growing.
The Tompkins Conservation Project recently signed an environmental agreement with the Chilean government. This revolutionary pact created the new Patagonia National Park by combining the Patagonia Park with the two adjoining reserves. It will open the area to the general public and give them a better appreciation of the natural world around them. Douglass’ vision, all along, had been to open animal migratory corridors and create a central protection area in the heart of Chile.
To gain a better understanding of these natural treasures, we explored the area with an expert guide. We went hiking around a beautiful, remote lagoon, visited the rhea rehabilitation center (where rheas are being bred to repopulate the region), and trekked at dusk to find pumas. Although these locations and experiences represent only a small portion of what the park has to offer, it gave us an idea of its magnitude and ecological diversity. Through years of hard work and persistence, the Tompkins have turned this land into a perfect example of successful conservation.
In the Field:
Photos taking from outside sources of Roberto Bubas and his interactions with the orcas: