A female sea lion climbs a rock face covered with cormorants on the coast of southern Argentina.
Up Close and Personal With Sea Lions
The constant hum of the bus tires was like a lullaby that attempted to lull me back to sleep.
Outside the window, there was a sea of black for the entire night and rarely punctuated with any kind of light. When the morning sun pushed away the darkness, as far as the eye could see was endless scrub.
No towns, no farmhouses, nothing but a fence line running parallel to the road and brown short scrubby bushes. It reminded me of eastern Colorado or Wyoming, except it was more open, less populated and flatter.
Eastern Argentina sits in the rain shadow created by the Andean Mountains. The fertile pampas found further inland escaped me as I headed straight south along the Atlantic coast.
I was happy the 18-hour bus ride had come to an end.
A large male sea lion protects his harem on the coast of southern Argentina.
As I stepped off the bus in the city of Puerto Madryn, a voice in the crowd said, “Dean Jacobs.”
I wasn’t expecting to be picked up; my instructions were to go to an office and ask for Claudia Hume.
“Yes, my work finished early, so I decided to meet you at the bus station,” she said. Hume was a relative of my friend, Peter Duggan, with whom I had just spent the last week in Buenos Aires. Duggan had contacted Hume and told her I was traveling to Puerto Madryn.
It’s always nice to be welcomed to an unfamiliar place. It takes away a little of the tension of trying to figure out the most basic things, like which way to walk out of the bus station.
“Let’s go. I’m going to teach you how to use the bus system,” Hume said as she handed me a bus ticket.
“You can either stay at a hostel or stay with me. I have a little garden shack that has a bed. It’s not much, but you are welcome to it.”
“I’ll gladly accept your offer,” I replied.
Hume’s home would become my base for the next week. A big gift is that she speaks fluent English, works as a tourist guide and would be able to offer suggestions on what to do.
More importantly, it was a chance to share a moment of daily life with an Argentinian.
Hume’s life is worthy of a book. She was a former flight attendant, had a commercial pilot’s license and had taken in 10 street children to raise on her own. I enjoyed listening to her stories as much as creating my own.
“I suggest you go swim with the southern sea lions,” Hume said.
Tourists swim with sea lions off the coast of southern Argentina near the city of Puerto Madryn.
The South American sea lion's size and weight can vary considerably. Adult males can grow over 9 feet and weigh up to 770 pounds. Adult females grow up to 6-7 feet and weigh about half the weight of the males, around 330 pounds.
Early the next morning, I signed the paperwork at one of the local tourist agencies.
“Here’s a wetsuit. Put this on,” one of the guides said. “It will help you float and keep you warm in the cold waters.”
I asked, “How cold?” and was told “cold enough.”
A cold, deep current comes up from Antarctica. The current is filled with nutrients and food, bringing life to the animals that call this place home. The sea lions prefer a diet of fish, squid and occasional penguin.
I didn’t care if it was cold. How often does one get to swim with South American sea lions in the wild?
“Get into the boat. Let’s go,” one of the guides said.
Soon we were near a breeding colony of sea lions sunning themselves on the beach, many with their heads pointed straight up. Others swam in groups just off shore.
“Don’t worry about the males. They won’t bother you even though they are protecting their harem of females,” the guide explained. “You’re not considered a threat to steal one of their women.”
That’s good to know. I don’t think I would like to have a 770-pound sea lion mad at me because one of his wives took a fancy to a Nebraskan who can barely swim.
“We will have about an hour with the sea lions. Please keep track of where I am and enjoy,” our guide instructed.
I jumped into the water and soon found myself surrounded on all sides with curious female sea lions. With their tan-colored fur, large black eyes and upturned noses, they swam right up to my snorkel mask.
I giggled like a small child as they danced in the water and occasionally bumped into me on purpose, I guessed, to hear me laugh more.
A couple of times, as a sea lion swam by, I reached out to touch it. On contact, the sea lion stopped and stared at me with those large black eyes and almost seemed to smile before it swam away.
Cold water. What cold water?
Dean Jacobs swims with sea lions off the coast of southern Argentina.