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Tuesday 4 Apr
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Orcas vs Sea Lions

The skies were clear and unusually there was no wind. Far out down past the peninsular to our right, Sara spotted some black shapes in the water. Through our zoom lens you could see their spouts and once or twice, the familiar white ovals on their flanks.

The sea lions lounged on the beach close to the waterline. The pups appeared to be put into groups, which were watched over by a nanny. Otherwise, apart from the odd bark, there was very little activity.

Back at the peninsular, the Orcas played on a reef break 100 yards from the shore. They looked to have their eyes on a harem of sea lions further down the beach.

Then we heard some commotion from a couple of professional photographers at the left end of the beach. Four orcas, including a mother and a baby, had appeared at the shoreline and were heading straight for us; cruising in the shallow water. The mother's huge dorsal fin cut through the gentle surf. A bow wave came off her nose, which quickly parted and she was out of the water up to her pectoral fins, eyeing the harem of sea lions ahead.

Back at the harem, the sea lions now had their heads in the air: backs stretched in a kind of yoga position. Why didn't they move further up the beach? There was their greatest predator only yards away. They seemed dumbfounded by the events going on in front of them. These animals, renowned for their intelligence, were up against a foe yet more clever than themselves (which was more apparent later in the day).

Then it happened. We suddenly spotted two sea lions swimming parallel to the shore. It was as if the orcas had seen them at the same time. Together, the mother and another headed in on a diagonal towards them. Working together in only 1 metre of water these enormous beasts managed to trap them between their bow waves and the beach. In the turbulent water it was difficult to see what happened and moments later the orcas turned away. Had they caught them? There was no blood, no thrashing around and absolutely no reaction from the harem on the beach. Then, horrifically, the mother rolled over to display a sea lion in her mouth to the gathering of photographers and tourists lined up at the top of the beach. There were a couple of "oh"'s, but otherwise silence. We were as stupefied as the sea lions by what we saw.

There are only two places in the world where orcas display this activity. Here, in Peninsula Valdez in Argentina and Isla Crozet in Antarctica. It only happens at a certain time of year (March-early April) and only at hide tide. A couple of Dutch photographers had been there for 35 days and it was only in the last 5 that they had seen any action. Unlike Torres del Paine, luck was on our side.

The orcas carried on down the beach, towards the group we could see off the peninsular. Minutes later they returned with the other Orcas in tow. There were now 8 patrolling the shoreline only 100 yards from our viewpoint. Our emotions were mixed between begging the sea lions to move up the beach and what can only be described as blood lust to witness this again, which we did. This time it was away from the harem. Again two sea lions were out in the waves and again 2 or 3 Orcas worked together to trap them. One got away.

The orcas here are supposed to be the most sophisticated of the two groups known to engage in this behaviour. The skill is taught to the young orcas by known elders identified by naturalists. Later in the day, when the tide had gone down, we witnessed this. On a clear patch of beach a group of orcas were riding the waves in and turning away again. It was evident that the orcas we saw at the beginning of the day, playing in the breakers, were actually practicing their technique. You hear of whales and dolphins accidentally beaching themselves dying all the time. These ones were doing it on purpose.

We came back the next day hungry for more. What can I say? When do you get the chance to see predatory behaviour by wild animals and see these magnificent creatures so close up? This time they were a lot less active and only once did we see the orcas attempt a kill, which was unsuccessful. We understood how fortunate we had been to see what we had. It was time to leave.

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