There are four main type of whales to be found in Patagonia: the Orca or 'Killer whale', the Humpback whale, the Southern Right whale, and the Blue Whale. Peninsula Valdes is the place to go for both Southern Right Whales (June-December) and Orcas (September, March & April). Humpback whales can be seen in southern Patagonia, for example on a whale watching adventure cruise, and blue whales can be spotted off of the Island of Chiloe.
Seals and Sea Lions
Southern Elephant Seals
Southern elephant seals are the largest of all seal species. They get their name from the shape of the male's nose which looks like an elephant's trunk, and are known for exhibiting the greatest sexual dimorphism of all mammals. During the breeding season a male may gather a harem of over 50 females with whom he can mate!
They are easiest to spot in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Peninsula Valdes, where you can kayak up to and walk alongside huge colonies of these big, barking beasts! There are around 500 harems here, with up to 130 females in each.
Dominant males make up just 14% of the population and can mate up to 50 times a day! They use their peculiar looking trunk to defy competitors with roaring and belching sounds. They can reach up to 6.2 metres and 4 tons, can make free dives up to 1,500 metres deep, and can travel over 11,000km a year!
South American Fur Seal
Fur seals laze around in caves or on steep, rocky slopes in the day to shade from the sun. At night they dive to depths of 100ft to feed on fish, squid and crustaceans. Breeding season in Patagonia is from October to January. Females will bear a single pup after a 350 day gestation period. Marine predators include sharks and orcas and it is said vampire bats suck the blood from pups. There are around 40,000 South American fur seals in Chile and they are now protected.
South American Sea Lion
These fierce yet fragile creatures are one of the largest inhabitant species of the Valdes Peninsula's coast, reaching up to three metres long, and weighing up to 350kg. Groups of males (who can be recognised by the thick mane covering their neck and chest) begin to colonise the area from December, and they defend their territory aggressively (beware!), whilst awaiting the arrival of the females. Each male has a harem of up to ten females, who give birth to their young a few days after arrival on the Peninsula, ready to mate again a week after birth.
There are several lively & energetic species of dolphin that add a splash of mischief and charm to Patagonia's waters! Dusky dolphins can be recognised by their short, dark beak, black dorsal fin with grey crescent, dark pectoral fins and dark pointed tail which has a deep central notch. They are incredibly acrobatic dolphins, jumping high out of the water, making pirouettes and somersaults both forwards and backwards.
The fast-paced Commerson's dolphin's are found along the Argentine coast from San Matias Gulf to Tierra del Fuego. They can be spotted in groups of 2-10 dolphins, but live in pods of up to 100. They are speedy and active swimmers, often seen diving and jumping, swimming upside down, and surfing the waves and wakes of boats or even whales.
Risso's dolphins form mid-sized herds that surface slowly and occasionally breach or bow ride. They have a robust, heavily-scarred grey body with long, pointed flippers and a tall dorsal fin.
Peales dolphins are found in cool waters, bays and inlets. They are frequent bow riders , leaping high into the air and landing with a loud splash. They form groups of 5 to 30 individuals and search kelp beds to feed on fish and squid.
Marine otters get their name from the amount of time they spend at sea. They are quick swimmers and feed on crabs, fish and sometimes small birds. Mating takes place in the water. They can float effortlessly on their backs, being carried along by the waves. There are fewer than 1,000 marine otters left in Chile (and Peru) mainly due to being killed for alleged damage to prawn and crab fisheries.
Southern River Otter
Along with the marine otters, the southern river otters are also endangered as they are hunted for their pelt. The river otter shelters in coastal rocks, lakeshores and riverbanks. They have two entrances to their burrows, one under water, the other hidden in vegetation. They feed on fish, shrimps, frogs and some small birds. Their ears and nostrils close when they are swimming or diving.
Photos (c) Rodrigo Tapia
The ocean's around Patagonia are so rich with marine life, when I'm on boat trips or on the coast my eyes are always peeled to the big blue and I've never been disappointed by what I've seen.
Chloe O'Keeffe Patagonia Specialist
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