Life on Planet Earth is full surprises! So as to the animals: especially on a beach of the Atlantic Ocean in a remote location of Argentina where nature offers a great spectacle.
In the year 1976, Juan Carlos Lopez, a ranger in charge of the wild life protected area at Punta Norte on the Peninsula Valdes in Argentina, noticed a very unusual behavior of Orcas; when they ambushed Sea Lion Puppies on the shores of Punta Norte. This rare hunting technique of the giant killers of the ocean usually happens between the third week of March till end April.
Since 1976, there had been many visitors including wild life documentary filmmakers, photographers as well as the researchers of Orca to Punta Norte to experience and record this thrilling action.
The Sea Lion puppies are usually born in January weighing up to 8kgs and their first swim in water happens in March when they are around 30kgs. The male has a harem of 10 to 15 females and when the puppies are born, within two weeks after giving birth, the male mates again with the new mums and leaves the colony. Gestation period is twelve months. The adult female weighs around 150kgs while the male is twice the size of the female. The Orcas are also known as Killer Whales, and is the largest in the dolphin family while the female weighs from 5 to 7 tons with a gestation period of 17 months. The male weighs around 9 tons.
There are a few scattered Sea Lion colonies on the beach at Punta Norte stretching approximately 800 meters facing a reef. On the reef, there are a few channels open to the deep sea which helps the Sea Lions to access the sea directly as well as for the marine giants to approach the beach through the channels to catch their favorite prey, the baby Sea Lion. One of the channels is quite large located 600 meters away from the public viewpoint, where on most occasions, the rangers found that Orca came hunting, commonly known as the “Attack Channel” of the Punta Norte. A special permit for a fee is needed to enter this area and limited numbers of not more than ten photographers at a time are allowed at any given time. This permit needs to be reserved well in advance.
The Orcas generally hunt during a four hour window, two hours before high tide and within two after the tide on a calm sea. In Punta Norte the north wind affects Orca hunting and hence chances for sighting Orca with Sea Lions puppies are remote even during the activity period of 30 days.
I was in Punta Norte last year, from 28th March to 5th April 2015, but returned home without seeing any activity. Hence, this year I planned a longer stay from 12th to 25th April. As scheduled, I landed at the Trelew Airport from Buenos Aires on 12th April morning, when a ranger from Punta Norte, Hector Casin, was at the airport to greet me. The nearest city to Punta Norte is Puerto Piramides, which is 75kms away, where I was based during my stay in Southern Argentina.
The high tide for the 12th at Punta Norte was at 14.28 hours. We arrived in Punta Norte around 12noon. The sea was not rough. I kept my fingers crossed for luck. The Ranger’s station at the look out point is fitted with radio communication equipment, which helps to connect with other stations/rangers nearby for tracking Orca movements. Around 12.30 hours, the ranger station received information of two Orcas moving from the South towards North of the peninsular. Expecting the giant marine killers to come to the attack channel, two rangers guided me and a few other photographers to the channel. We stayed seated low on the beach keeping a minimum distance of 20 meters from the Sea Lion colony to avoid disturbing them, facing the ocean with our cameras ready to go and waited in anticipation for the show to begin. There were many Sea Lion puppies together with their mothers swimming on the water by the beach.
It was around 13.00 hours, when Hector noticed a movement of an Orca coming towards the attack channel. Later, we all caught sight of the dorsal fin of the Orca, as it suddenly came like a bullet towards the beach. Within a few seconds the predator was on the beach waterfront, but it missed the targeted prey, stayed for a few seconds in shallow water before it went back to deep water. Later, it moved up North with the other Orca. During the past ten years, Orca researches identified each Orca in the region by the unique marks on the white patch on the skin close to the dorsal fin together with marks/shapes on the fins if any. Names were given to each Orca and some were given by the school children in the Peninsular Valdes. The Orca sighted by us was a female named Pao. When the front of the dossal fin is straight, it’s a male while the female has a curve on the fin. We waited till end of the high tide expecting the Orcas to return, but on that first day it was not to be. So we returned to Puerto Piramides for the night.
The following two days again the same pair of killer whales were seen at a distance but without any drama. On the 15th the sea was rough and no sightings were recorded at the Rangers’ station.
On the 16th the high tides were at 06.26 and 18.38 hours. The chances of seeing the Orcas in the morning after sunrise and in the late afternoon before sunset were promising. We left Puerto Piramides at 06.00 hours and arrived at Punta Norte just before sunrise. The weather was excellent, there was no North wind, the sea was calm, while the scenery just before sunrise was great. The sunrise was around 7.30 am. The radio station received a message around 08.30 hours of an Orca movement from South to North and within minutes we were at the attack channel. Once again at about 09.30 hours we spotted two Orcas heading towards the attack channel. Although the two predators made a few attempts, once again they were unsuccessful. Later, both the giant mammals moved North before low tide. It was the same two killer whales that we had seen before named Pao and Lea. According to Hector, during the last few years this pair has often been sighted together. At low tide, the attack channel was clearly visible.
Since we had planned to stay in Punta Norte for the whole day, Pablo, a veterinary surgeon from Buenos Aires, an annual visitor to the Attack Channel, and who I had first met last year, arranged a traditional lamb BBQ with the help the rangers at Punta Norte. After a great meal, while I was resting inside Hector’s car, at around 15.00 hours, Pablo came with exciting news. An Orca family of eight named Maga, has been sighted heading North up the peninsula. Once again, we all got our camera gear ready and moved towards the attack channel. It was perfect lighting for photography. The sea conditions were perfect for the Orca to hunt with the water level rising on a calm sea. As anticipated the Maga family was within our sight. Then the drama unfolded! From 16.00 to 18.50 hours my camera was busy capturing the images of the giants killers of the ocean as they demonstrated their excellent hunting skill at the attack channel. I have not experienced such a spectacle before in my 50 years of wild life photography. Maga is a 30 year old female and her offspring Valen (22 years) and Mica (14 years) who are both females were very active at the attack channel, especially Mica along with her calf. According to Hector the rest of the family was in front of the lookout point. He also mentioned that for the current Orca season in the Peninsular Valdes, the activity that we witnessed on the evening of April 16th was by far by the best.
Going through the images that I had taken at the attack channel on that day, it was evident that the first successful hunt was at 16.30 hours by Mica. The Giant Petrels were flying in the vicinity of Orca movements and they have an excellent sense of smell for food similar to that of Hyenas in the African wild. They took the opportunity to scavenge on the left over floating on water. There would have been at least 4 to 5 successful attacks of which I managed to video record one instance.
On the following morning, the high tide was at 07.38 hours. We arrived in Punta Norte just before sunrise. Hector checked through his binoculars from the viewpoint focusing on the attack channel. To my delight, he intimated with great excitement the presence of a Southern Right Whale together with Orca at the channel. We all rushed to the attack channel. My camera backpack weighs over 12 kgs, but I did not feel it because of the thrill of hearing the news from Hector. The Whale was there for almost two hours but the Orcas were disturbed by the presence of the Whale, and did not attempt to hunt Sea Lions. It was first time that Hector, had seen both mammals together at the channel. I managed to take a few photos with them together. We returned back to the viewpoint by 10.30 hours. Since the next high tide was at 19.47 hours, I decided to return to Puerto Piramides.
After 17th April there was no further activity to record and on the 24th evening I returned to Buenos Aires. Thereafter, I continued my photographic tour to Cuba to capture the images of the male Bee Hummingbird (smallest living bird on our planet). From January to May each year, which the mating season for this bird, the color of the head and the neck of the male changes to reddish pink to attract the female. I returned to Sri Lanka via the USA on the 7th May.