We sat silently slack-jawed as the male sea lions violently fought for the preservation of their harem and the females endured their lot in life as they lay helplessly under the enormous weight of the males shortly after giving birth only to be impregnated again. This was mating season.
A chance meeting and a travel lead led us to a little known, remote and exclusive wildlife viewing opportunity on the Atlantic coast of Argentina in Patagonia. The choice to visit this particular park was perfect with so many available. The quantity and quality of the wildlife including penguins, sea lions and abundant sea birds was matched only by the closeness of the viewing and the lack of other visitors besides our own small group.
Bahia Bustamante is a private estancia (ranch) and seaweed village established in 1953 by Don Lorenzo Soriano (1901-1987) where he pioneered a thriving harvesting and processing seaweed industry. He was looking for seaweed along the Patagonia coast for hair gel products and he found plenty of it in what was known as “Rotten Bay.” Once employing several hundred the village today is much smaller and also offers nature lovers a rare chance to experience authentic estancia village life. One of his grandsons and a great-grandson work at the lodge today. Visitors can mingle among a diverse selection of seabirds and marine mammals in parts of the protected National Park “Patagonia Austral.”
With so much coastal land in the estancia and so few visitors we had the chance to visit one month old baby penguins with their mothers in their nests. We had no need for binoculars because we were surrounded by penguins- guests in their own homes close enough to touch their newborn coats but of course we didn’t.
Our timing for viewing the sea lion mating ritual could not have been more perfect even if we had a clue how to schedule such an event. Our boat approached the islands to which the sea lions return annually for the purpose of procreating. We voyeurs saw up close an utterly raw and uncensored glimpse into the violent and frantic quest for survival. The males violently fight each other for dominance over the greatest number of females. Void of tenderness and full of brutish aggression with single mindedness they mate continually for a two week period without eating. At the end of the mate fest they will sprawl exhausted and depleted of their massive weight. Alongside all of this mayhem babies are born sometimes squashed between their mothers and their massive suitors. We shared a boat for the island tour with a group of professors from Cornell University on their annual research trip with students. We asked them if this was typical for sea lions in other parts of the world. They told us this breed was much more violent and the mating season shorter so the sense of urgency was greater. For us this experience is one which we’ll never forget.