LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 82
Pags. 36 al 43
By: Soledad Gil
Photos: Federico Quintana
ORCS AT VALDES
If I had to choose an ideal punishment it would have to be playing jacks with the pebbles on the beach of Punta Norte, until every single stone has been used. That would surely take a life time and more, precisely the kind of life sentence I could go for after having set foot in this glorious bit of the planet.
And if I could choose the setting, it would be sunset on the point, by the lighthouse, where orcas, whales, penguins, sea elephants, seals and seagulls rendezvous ...ah, then let it be a life sentence of open skies, those same blue skies that watch over Punta Norte in the evenings.
The peninsula is definitely enchanted. Not only does it bewitch the animals, but also photographers and wildlife lovers alike. This was Federico's third visit and he had gone to such lengths to tell me all the wonders of the orcas that I had even become a little sceptical.
But he was determined to prove to me that he had not exaggerated in the least and that the orcas were addictive. Maybe even magical.
He picked me up at the Madryn airport and from there we drove 80km on tarmac roads to Pirámides. Then another 75km of dirt roads to La Ernestina, the only estancia that seems to have been custom made for photo-journalists from all over the world, who camp here and do not budge until they have obtained "the" shot. Amos, who had accompanied Fede to Pirámides to make a phone call, was one of those.
A real character, he was born in Israel but lives in San Francisco and organises photographic safaris anywhere in the world to see Great White Sharks, lions, elephants and polar bears. He was in Valdés to include the orcas on his extraordinary tours. After being there for quite some time he had only learnt a couple of words in Spanish, but got along just fine.
It was March and, apart from Fede's and Amos's rooms, the other two rooms of La Ernestina were also occupied by photographers. It is the crucial month in the life-cycle of the orcas that live in this region all year round, as they attack particularly at this time of year.
English was spoken at the table and everywhere you looked there were rolls of films and camera flashes lying around. The estancia has no great luxuries but is very comfortable. There's home-made food, barbecues, 4x4s and the infinite kindness of our young host Juan Manuel Copello, who knows the whims of his guests inside out. Being them professionals or families, they are there to take in the peculiar geography of the cove, the penguin colonies, the pebbled beaches, the arid steppe and the deep blue sea. There is something for everyone and Juan is always there with a smile, just about to take off on the ideal tour for you.
In any case, Punta Norte needs no special production efforts to appear attractive. It is naturally beautiful. When the orcas are there, the day's schedule is easy to organise, according to the tides. They attack when it is high, and one can calculate the exact time it will be so each day, offering two opportunities to see the attacks: in the morning and in the evening. With quasi-religious devotion, everyone gathers there for hours on end.
The photographers and their spotters, who are paid a daily wage, and the growing crowd of viewers standing behind the fence of the "Centro de Interpretación", recently refurbished for this reason: there are more and more people who come here either to have a quick look and leave or to wait and wait, which is what you have to do if your are genuinely interested in seeing the orcas.
"It was not like this the last time I came", was the first thing Fede said to me when he saw the new parking lot right outside the tiny museum. There are tame armadillos and foxes eating out of people's hands and many visitors who expect the behaviour of orcas to be like that of the whales. The latter are reliable but with the orcas that is just not the case. They are far from punctual. If the wind changes or it rains or they simply don't feel like it, they won't show up or will just disappear. Regardless of this being the month when everyone comes to see them.
Perhaps their unsociable behaviour is precisely what preserves Punta Norte. Visitors should be warned that if they come for a day or two, they may well return home having seen nothing at all and having spent a very cold couple of days indeed! Although there are always the fortunate ones who in three days get to see five attacks.
I did not get to see any, but I did see Mel come out of the water only three metres off the coast, and almost had a heart attack. Mel is the male leader of the Valdés colony. He is enormous and has a bent dorsal fin, someone having taken a shot at him some years ago. Met being Mel, he appeared out of nowhere. He blew and submerged. I was speechless. I saw that black skin, smooth and shiny, as if it had just been polished, come out of the sea stealthily, unexpectedly and was staggered and amazed.
We stood motionless waiting for him to reappear, but alas it was not to be. He was gone. Fede looked my way and saw the new me, I was a convert. I wanted to see more! "They are unpredictable", he said.
However, I took to the routine of the waiting game, even when none would appear. In just a few days you become familiar with all the faces, and their stories. That is how we met Tibor, a Hungarian, obsessed with orcas. He had been there for three weeks and hitchhiked to Piramides every single day. He calculated the tide schedule and would start out with plenty of time so as not to miss the high tide.
Camping is forbidden at the Punta so he preferred to allocate his budget to staying longer even if that meant less comfort. Nonetheless, when the high tide was very early and he reckoned he would have a hard time hitching a ride, he would splash out and rent a car for the day to make sure he made it in time. It was always a possibility that the investment would not pay off, but he was prepared to take that risk. After all, the whole purpose of his trip was to see the orcas. He had done the same in Norway and Canada.
I would chat with Tibor and Amos, Fede and the photographers, gamekeepers and spotters. During the high season there are quite a few of them, but the one who never fails to show up is Roberto Bubas, the gamekeeper whose vocation brought him here long before there was parking or even heating. "Beto" gave the orcas their names, he is on all the documentary films, usually mounting his arab horse, Rigel. But more important, he knows each and every one of the orcas and can tell you about them individually.
For the guests staying at La Ernestina, the orca days are even sweeter. When the tide goes down in the evening, we would all be looking forward to our "gin and tonic happy hour". Juan Manuel organised the ice chests and the caravans of 4x4s to the lighthouse, who went with who, or all together, because after a few days we were all best buddies. Amos would get a little anxious because each sunset was better than the previous day, and he didn't want to miss out on anything. So, we would go to see the sun go down over the penguin colony, sitting on the beach, sipping our gin and tonics and playing jacks with the pebbles.