Close Encounters: Swimming with Sea Lion Pups in Patagonia

A wildlife guide to meeting the playful creatures off Argentina's coast.| By Jayati Vora  
Sea Lion Atlantic Ocean Argentina Punta Loma
Sea lions slow their heart rates when they are underwater, and can remain submerged for up to 10 minutes. This is especially useful when they are hunting small fish. Photo: Thomas Schmitt/Stockbyte/Getty images

Seventeen kilometres south of the Patagonian town of Puerto Madryn in Argentina is Punta Loma, home to a permanent colony of sea lions. This area lies in the Golfo Nuevo and is the first natural reserve in the province. My husband and I had driven there the previous day, to gawk at sea lions sunning themselves on the beach. But they were down by the water, and we were up by the cliffs, peering at their motionless forms on the sand through our zoom lenses.

We decided to get much closer. Several dive shops in Puerto Madryn offer snorkelling and scuba diving tours in the waters off Punta Loma, where visitors can interact with sea lions in their natural environment. I was excited, and ever so slightly nervous. I knew how to swim and Francisco, the guide, was reassuring, but these were large, wild animals, and we’d be in the water with them.

South American sea lions vary in size; the males grow up to an average of 2.6 metres and weigh about 300 kilogrammes, while the cows measure roughly 1.8 to 2 metres and weigh only half as much. Mature females are almost always pregnant, mating again just seven days after giving birth, while dominant males maintain harems on their hard-won territory.

Luckily, we were going to be in the water with the juveniles, and not the adults. The large males, with their lionesque manes, are a bit scary, and are known to be aggressive. But the adults had no interest in investigating the splashing humans off the shore; or so the guide told us. The young ones, though, would be attracted by the noise we made.

Clad in thick black wetsuits, hoodies, and booties, we descended from the boat into the frigid Atlantic Ocean, about 40 feet away from the colony. Francisco had instructed us to link hands and swim backwards in a line, kicking our feet as noisily as possible. It worked. A few minutes later, we were surrounded by over a dozen chocolate-coloured sea lion pups curious about the noisy creatures in their midst. Their heads, smooth and round as ostrich eggs, popped out of the water one by one, and I gasped and shivered to see them so close. Velvety triangle noses and drooping whiskers gleamed in the sun. Their eyes were large, limpid, and a deep brown. They were mostly silent, unlike the patriarchs on the beach who intimidated all of us with their loud barks.

Sea Lion Atlantic Ocean Argentina Punta Loma

Sea lions are always found in large groups or colonies in which females vastly outnumber males. However, it isn’t uncommon for individuals to migrate to different colonies. Photo: Image Broker/Indiapicture

Our new-found friends dove and resurfaced, and we followed them. There was no wariness on their part, no fear. I had an underwater camera, but was too slow to capture their quicksilver movements. They darted between us, now here, now there. I reached out a hand to touch one but was a fraction too late. I swam up to take another breath, laughing. Their playfulness and intelligence reminded me of puppies.

Underwater, they were all speed and grace, their fins tucked to the sides of their bodies. Despite the slight murkiness of the water, I could see the lines of their fur slicked back over their heads. A few of them were younger, their bodies smaller and slimmer, their heads the size of my palm. These stayed slightly away from our flailing legs as we treaded water.

We frolicked—really, there’s no other word for it—in the water with the sea lions for three-quarters of an hour, pulling our synchronised swimming stunt a few more times to keep their interest. I managed to touch one as it darted under my legs, more by accident than any skill or speed on my part. When it was time to get back into the boat, I did so reluctantly. The pups were swimming off, brown streaks in the water. The exhilaration stayed with us through the boat ride and for days afterward.

Animals of Valdés Peninsula

One morning we set off on a day-long bus tour of the Valdés Peninsula, a wildlife sanctuary and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is connected to the mainland by the Carlos Ameghino Isthmus, where we made our first stop at the Visitors Center. The marine life and fauna of the area includes guanacos, foxes, maras (Patagonian hares), various falcons, and from June through December, southern right whales. From there we went on to the small town of Puerto Piramides, where a boat excursion took us to watch sea lions and cormorants. It was pleasant to be on the water with the sun on our faces.

The bus tour continued to the Caleta Valdés, where a tongue of land formed by pebbles, soil, and sand creates a protected lagoon where elephant seals gather. A handful of the massive creatures were sunning themselves on the pebbled beach. The bulls, or adult males, have a large proboscis resembling an elephant’s trunk, hence the name. Much larger than sea lions, they can measure up to 5 m in length and weigh as much as 2,700 kg. Elephant seals attract killer whales, which like to hunt the animals by beaching themselves on the pebbles, then, prey in jaws they slide back into the water.

The final highlight was seeing the Magellanic penguins, which only grow to 70 cm and weigh just 4 kg. The largest colony, home to 25,000 pairs, is at Punta Tombo, south of Puerto Madryn.

Sea Lion Atlantic Ocean Argentina Punta Loma

There are six different sub-species of sea lion found in different parts of the world, across varied climates. The Japanese sea lion used to be the seventh but sadly, it is now extinct. Photo: Travelbild.com/Alamy/Indiapicture

Appeared in the November 2012 issue as “Stalking Sea Lions”.

The Guide

Orientation

Puerto Madryn is on the Pacific coast of southern Argentina, in Patagonia. it is about 50km from the Valdés Peninsula, which is famous for its variety of marine animals. Valdés Peninsula and Punta Ninfas together form Golfo Nuevo. Visitors also come here to see whales and penguins.

Getting There and Around

To get to Puerto Madryn, you can fly into Trelew international airport, 60 km from the city. There are frequent flights from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. You can also rent a car from the airport to get to Puerto Madryn and keep it for the duration of the trip. alternatively, hotels can also help with arranging a taxi.

Booking Tips

This trip was arranged by Lobo Larsen Buceo (www.lobolarsen.com), whose friendly guide Francisco also owns and operates Patagonia resto bar. If you eat at his restaurant and let him know you’re doing the tour, you’ll get a discount. They say you will “dive” with the sea lions, and it’s true, some people do go down with scuba equipment, but it’s not too deep where the sea lion colony is, and it’s more fun (I think) to interact with them on the surface anyway, where you can always duck underwater with your snorkel mask to see them swim. Plus it doesn’t require scuba certification.

Stay

We stayed at the Hotel Peninsula Valdés (www.hotelpeninsula.com.ar/eng/which is on the main strip in Puerto Madryn and walking distance from most restaurants. There’s a tour and travel agency just below, which can help with bookings and suggestions. It’s clean and comfortable but not luxurious. (We got a great deal by booking at the last minute.)

Other Places to Swim with Sea Lions

Snorkelling or diving with sea lions can be done in a number of countries across the world, primarily in the south Pacific. In South America, dives are conducted off the shores of Argentina, Peru and Ecuador, and also around the Galapágos Islands. Two different species of sea lion inhabit the Pacific ocean and Tasman sea around Australia and New Zealand. In the northern hemisphere, the California sea lion inhabits the U.S.A.’s west coast, between Alaska and the Gulf of California.

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