April 17, 2008

Killer Whales Hunt on Shore in Argentina

A strange form of hunting can be witnessed near the northern tip of Argentina. Orcas, also known as killer whales, have been seen launching themselves onto the shore with intentions of making a sea lion pup part of their next meal.

The orcas use sonar to hunt. They beach themselves in high tide, and allow the waves to carry them back into the sea. The method is risky, but orcas attempt to judge the waves pattern to make sure they are able to catch the next wave and return to the sea.

The rare phenomenon has been reported seven times. Each event involved orca who were members of a pod that swims along the coast of Patagonia's Valdes Peninsula during March and April "“ autumn in the southern hemisphere. The season coincides with the early development of baby sea lions.

Whales stalk their prey in deep channels such as Playa Punta Norte, where sea lions breed. The young pups often learn to swim between the rocks in the channel, but only the most developed pups are able to escape from the orcas.

Roberto Bubas, has 15 years of experience observing orcas in Patagonia. He said that the hunting method has been passed along to some younger members of the pod by five of the beached whales he witnessed.

"It's a culture at risk," Bubas said.

Orcas are a main attraction for tourists in the area. Last year, 340,000 tourists visited Valdes Peninsula via cruise ships in hopes of seeing orcas, sea lions or penguins.

Tourists are not allowed to walk along the majority of beaches, and tour companies are ordered not to overcrowd their groups in certain regions.

"Tourism is growing and growing. It's massive. What we're trying to do is redistribute the tourists," said Sergio Casin, Conservation Director for Protected Areas in the southern Argentine province of Chubut.

"Taking a lot of people there would make the sea lions stampede, which would damage the (whale's) food and the life of the sea lions themselves," he said.

Juan Copello's family owns a lodge at Playa Punta Norte, where he also observes whales for the Punta Norte Orca Research group. Landowners in the area are allowed to live there but are asked to help government efforts to protect wildlife.

"The problem is trying to control all the people who don't know how to respect the animals on the beach," said Copello.

"In places where people always went down to the beach the animals have moved on and sought quieter areas," he said.


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