The sea that bathes the coast of Peninsula Valdes teems with life, and provides food for the colonies of sea lions, elephant seals and penguins that live here.
The main value of the Valdés peninsula is, however, not to be found inland, but along the coast, where life is much more profuse. Over 100 species of austral birds nest along the coast and come to the beach in search of food. Alongside them live the South American sea lions, also called sea wolves, or fur seals, due to the clump of fur around the head of the males. The total population on the Valdés Peninsula is estimated to be around 20,000, the majority of them females who each year give birth to hundreds of pups on these beaches. The conditions are so favourable for them that their numbers rise a little each year.
The waters around the peninsula must have sufficient reserves of food to sustain these growing colonies of mammals and sea birds. Part of these reserves is revealed at low tide. The beaches are then covered with a multi-coloured blanket of vegetable, animal and mineral remains washed ashore by the currents.
The sea lions doze on the sand. In the water, they are extremely active, but on land they become lazy. Their clumsiness out of water, and the pleasant warmth of the sun are more than reason enough, and the colonies gather to slumber on the beach for hours at a time.
The sea lions remain along these coasts all year round. During the breeding seasons, the colonies gather at two places, one at either extreme of the peninsula: Punta Pirámides, in the south, and Punta Norte, in the north.
The pups also enjoy the afternoon sun. They are still very small, and don’t have the layer of fat necessary to survive in the freezing cold waters of the Atlantic. For the time being, their life is more terrestrial than marine, though not for long.
The beaches of Punta Norte are also a meeting point for another member of the seal family: the elephant seal.
The elephant seals are the largest members of the seal family in the world. The females can weigh up to 500 kilos, but even they are lightweights compared to the male. He is almost 5 metres long, and weighs around 2,500 kilos, almost ten times as much as a sea lion. The Valdés Peninsula is the only continental region where elephant seals have established a breeding colony.
The clumsiness of both the sea lions and the elephant seals on land contrasts with their incredible agility in the water. Their legs have evolved into flippers, and have conserved almost nothing of their former function. Only the claws at their ends remind us that once they were used to run across the ground.
The layer of fat that surrounds them, and their ability to restrict blood circulation at the periphery of their bodies, enable them to remain in the cold waters of the peninsula for hours on end. There, they play, hunt, and may even sleep.