Patagonia's Marine Menagerie
The plains of Patagonia in Argentina are dry and rugged; almost every bush bristles with thorns. But where the plains meet the Atlantic Ocean, there's an explosion of life. Armies of sea animals haul themselves ashore to breed and bear young. In this edition of Radio Expeditions, NPR's Christopher Joyce visits two biologists studying the region's wildlife. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and National Geographic.
Every summer at Argentina's Punta Tombo, hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins claim a 10-mile stretch of coastline. Imagine a vast and unruly schoolyard at recess.
University of Washington biologist Dee Boersma has been going to the shore for 21 years to study the behavior of these charismatic animals. With support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, she tracks the penguins' behavior on land and tries to figure out what they need to survive.
Boersma has attached numbered tags to thousands of penguins. She's fascinated by what she's found. Many of the penguins return every year, some to the same nest. The birds are monogamous and faithful — some have been mates for 17 years.
Boersma is also disturbed by what she's found. She has attached electronic tags to some of the penguins to track their foraging trips out to sea. The data shows that adults are going farther than ever — hundreds of kilometers — to get food for their chicks or a mate tending a nest egg at the colony. Many don't come back. Boersma says the colony's population appears to be falling. She worries that the growing fishing fleet in the South Atlantic is taking the fish and squid the penguins eat, or that climate change has altered ocean currents that bring food from Antarctic waters.
But Boersma's work has already translated into real benefits for the penguins. Her research helped convince oil companies to move shipping lanes to give penguins a wider berth. The Punta Tombo colony is also protected by the Argentine government. But Boersma would like to see some of the ocean protected as well. It's not just for the penguins' sake. The birds are monitors, she says. Their migration patterns and feeding habits are clues to what's happening hundreds of miles out to sea.
"My sense is it's a lot easier if we use seabirds to tell us things about the environment because they're like oceanographic platforms," says Boersma. "Unfortunately we don't use them nearly enough to tell us what's going on in the environment."
Elephant Seals on Parade
A city kid from Buenos Aires, Claudio Campagna made his first trip to the wilds of Patagonia as a teenager. As an adult, Campagna decided to quit life as a city doctor and head out on research boats to study the exotic marine life — wandering albatross, giant petrels, Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, sea lions, penguins — lured by the region's nutrient-rich waters.
"These are all extraordinary species," says Campagna, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, "extraordinary wildlife spectacles that are being sustained by this very productive sea."
His favorite places to visit are the deserted beaches of the Valdez Peninsula — the domain of the giant elephant seal. The animals — reaching more than a dozen feet long and weighing several thousand pounds each — look like a cross between a sausage and a submarine, with flippers at their ends and sides. They can spend three months at sea, diving day and night for fish. They head for the beaches when it's time to shed their skin or for breeding season.
Campagna monitors the movements and reproductive successes of the elephant seals through tagging and old-fashioned observation. Elephant seals, like all the marine animals off Argentina's southern coast, eat tons of fish and squid. Local fishing fleets also take large shares of fish and squid. But more and more, big, industrial foreign fishing fleets are moving into the region, and that worries conservationists. They wonder how the increased competition for the ocean's resources will play out.
Campagna and colleague Graham Harris, also of the WCS and the Patagonia Nature Fund, are currently talking with Argentine authorities and wildlife groups about "zoning" the ocean around southeastern South America. They want to subdivide part of the South Atlantic into regions, so that marine mammals and birds and fishing fleets drawn by the great southern ocean currents can coexist.
"We've concentrated our efforts on the coast, protecting the animals on shore," says Harris. "But from now on, I think the big challenge is to do that at sea."
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