A family Christmas with the elephant seals

At last the wind has abated. It is now just a stiff breeze blowing across the flat, dry ground. This is normal. Windmills twist slowly, sighing and creaking as they draw water to the surface, the sun was high and burning hot and the gauchos and sheep-dogs were ushering their charges into their pens. Horses roam aimlessly around the fields while a few guanacos (similar to llamas) are kept safely in a pen of their own.

tapalque-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-002The highlight of this stay was supposed to be quad-biking but for some reason the owner had decided to put the bikes in for a service and they would not be available. As intrepid explorers cannot be tied down, Debbie carts Daniel & Lauren off for a bike ride over the fields and far away. I was looking forward to a morning’s peace and quiet when they re-appeared, in a fairly short timeframe, carrying one bike that had completely fallen to pieces! Not to be thwarted by this minor issue Debbie ropes the kids into feeding the baby guanacos. Daniel slides out with beer in his hand.

peninsula-valdes-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-006Our Christmas residence was fortunately not this estancia but a lighthouse hotel on Peninsula Valdes, a vast, remote and barren area in the middle of Atlantic Patagonia. The bays and shoreline of the peninsula jut out into the Atlantic and serve as a marine life preserve for animals, notably penguins, elephant seals, sealions and whales. In order to reach our hotel we have to drive 75kms down a dirt track to reach the outer bays. The dirt track drive was a horrific experience because the car filled up with dust so we had to drive with the windows open, thereby collecting more dust but breathing was preferable to suffocating. The dust storm of the previous day had passed over and Christmas turned out to be beautiful and warm with clear blue skies and a light breeze. Animals in this area all run wild, in addition to the guanacos there are huge rabbits looking more like hares called Maras and a bevy of small birds and reptiles. The local beach area is controlled and access is with local guides only but in other areas you are free to roam, assuming you follow the rules.

peninsula-valdes-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-010Debbie & I left spent the early evening in the company of several hundred elephant seals whilst the kids retired for a siesta. The elephant seals are very smelly, never more so than at this time of the year due to the molting process that they go through after the mating season. The seashore it littered with females who are pregnant. They have a pup each year from the age of maturity, 2, until they are too old or knackered to have any more, around 20. In addition to the mums, there are equal numbers of pups who are now abandoned and alone for the mum is only maternal for 3 weeks. After that she leaves them to go and get pregnant again. Anyone would think they were on the council housing list. There are no adult males around at this time: male elephant seals have a harem of up to 120 females and, after impregnating all of them they are, understandably knackered, have lost around 40% of their body weight (could be about 4 tons) and need to go to sea for a jolly good feed. They will come back to the same shores in 4 months time all fat and blubby and start the ritual all over again. So they have all the fun but don’t have to live with the girls or their offspring. Sounds like paradise!

peninsula-valdes-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-011Alongside the smells is the noise of fighting mums, the male pups practicing their alpha dominance and crying pups who haven’t realized Mum has gone and they have to now fend for themselves. Given the speedy desertion pups gain 4x their birth-weight in 4 weeks for survival and amazingly the fatality rates for the pups is only around 2% – they learn quickly.

Christmas Eve turns out to be quite a party with most of the guests being Argentinean and they, like the Spanish, celebrate Christmas and exchange gifts in the evening of the 24th. We exchanged a few hugs and kisses with some of the group, played darts and retired to bed telling the children to be good otherwise Santa would not come!


peninsula-valdes-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-002It was just like being at home!! Daniel and Lauren joined us in our bedroom, we opened up some champagne, stockings were handed out and we all took it in turns to open a present. This actually took longer than expected. Daniel had arrived with heaps of presents from the family which we just hadn’t anticipated. We had enough champagne to last the day so we just stayed in the room, kept ourselves very private from the rest of the hotel and only emerged for lunch and the regular afternoon walk to blow away the cobwebs and prepare our bodies for more food and drink. It was a fantastic and relaxing day in a very oddly beautiful part of the world.

An added Christmas bonus and real treat for us was the sighting of seven orca in the bay that came in under the tuition of an adult male orca training the youngsters in how to attack and kill seals. They swam in two pods searching out individual seals that were not resting on the beach. These seals were isolated by circling the animal before attacking it, tossing the body around and then discarding the animal after it was dead. Two of the orcas practiced ‘beaching’ and disappeared back out again. The final tally of their exercise were four dead elephant seals just left bobbing around in the water and surf – clear evidence that they were not hungry but just practicing their killer skills – awesome but unfortunately without photos since we didn’t have the camera with us!

peninsula-valdes-argentina-Suenson-Taylor-021The rest of our time passed in very much the same lazy fashion – walking riding, reading, resting, eating and drinking. A couple of other notable highlights were Debbie enjoying playing darts – and unfortunately rather good at it! The riding and watching Daniel and Lauren revert to being children by having running races up the sand-dunes and who could throw their water bottle the furthest.

Sadly all good things come to an end and Daniel’s departure came around all too quickly. The kids left us on 27th to return to Santiago for New Year and we spent two days slowing wandering back up the east coast to our estancia for New Year.

A family Christmas with the elephant seals
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