Penguins, sea otters, sea lions and thousands of birds – the magic of Peru’s sealife on full display.
A few weeks back I first set foot in South America, arriving in Lima to start my research project studying bycatch in the artisanal fisheries. I would be working with the non-governmental organisation ProDelphinus that aims to conserve Peru’s marine wildlife.
Before I started on my project though, I got the chance to assist with their project in the southern coastal port of Ilo. It turned out to be a superb week of surveying the coasts filled with wildlife.
Penguins beyond a Sea Lion Fortress
The week of field work began with a quest to survey the Humboldt penguin population in the reserve of Punta de Coles. With only two rangers, their dog and thousands of marine animals, Punta de Coles felt deserted and a truly wild place. The landscape was stunning, with numerous giant sand dunes and rocky cliffs. The whole place was filled with signs that this place was undisturbed, as feathers, carcasses and nests littered the ground, evidence that we were amongst a privileged few that get to set foot in this reserve.
As we began our transect around the peninsula, thousands of birds surrounded us, taking to the air and approaching from the ground. I had never seen anything like it as the gulls flew around us. As my first experience of South American wildlife, everywhere I looked I saw new species I had never seen before. Even better than the avian life though was the sight of sea lions and fur seals. This was the first time I had ever seen wild pinnipeds and I was captivated by their actions. Despite many just lazing around enjoying the sun, several were on the move with their characteristically funny lumbering walk. They are definitely better adapted to a life in the sea than the land!
We were still yet to see any penguins though. This did not distract me from the rest of the wildlife on display, nonetheless. Cormorants, gulls, oystercatchers, plovers, whimbrels and egrets were just a few of the numerous birds on display in this birdwatcher’s paradise. One of the truly special animals to see in force here though was the Turkey vulture. It was great to see this animal flourishing in the area, a stark contrast to the rest of the world, as vultures continue to be the most threatened bird family worldwide. Across India and Africa, the decline of vultures has been well documented, as they are poisoned by the synthetic chemicals found in the carcasses they feed on. Having recently witnessed the lack of vultures in the plains of Kenya, it was a pleasant surprise to see the taxon was in good health in Peru.
However, it was not vultures why we were here. We continued our quest for penguins and eventually we were lucky to spot our first ones standing on the cliffs about 100m from us. These animals are much loved worldwide, and for good reason as they are superbly adapted to extreme marine and terrestrial environments. As a young child, I was fascinated by penguins, so it was very special to see my first penguin in the wild. I watched in awe as it danced on the cliff flapping its wings, before it was quickly joined by a second and third penguin waddling along the cliffs.
With the excitement well and truly in full flow, we continued our walk to the cliffs further along the peninsula where more penguins nest. As we approached though, we were met by a wall of sea lions blocking our path. Unable to carry on, we watched the sea lions in action, with several males staking a claim on their territory and harem by making deep, loud, guttural calls reverberating around us. There must have been hundreds in our way! The penguin cliff was well and truly protected by a powerful army. So unable to pass, we left them in peace and alas, three penguins would be all. Still, I felt very fortunate just to see these few beautiful animals, and a massive colony of sea lions was not a bad consolation either.
A port full of life
After our quest for penguins, we headed back to the town of Ilo where we visited the artisanal fishing ports. Here, it was a surprise to see similar levels of wildlife to the reserve we had just visited as a host of animals looked for a free meal. Every available spot was occupied by pelicans, extremely fearless individuals that would approach the fishermen for any unwanted the fish. The fishermen would oblige, keeping their noisy neighbours happy. Sea lions and sea otters also made an appearance looking for food.
Animals did not just flock to the port looking for a free meal, but some could even be found nesting too. To my surprise, several cormorant families had set up home under the pier, making the most of this man-made structure. It continued to show to me the incredible ingenuity of some animals and how they are able to colonise seemingly inhospitable places.
Nevertheless, the marine life here is extremely vulnerable to human activities with many species threatened by the actions of the fishermen. Numerous turtles, marine mammals and seabirds are accidently caught by the fishermen each day as they try to earn a living from Peru’s rich coastline. It is therefore vital to try and reduce their impacts on non-target species, so as part of ProDelphinus’s ongoing work to reduce bycatch, we helped to distribute pamphlets to the fishermen, informing them how to safely release any animals they accidently catch. A simple, but effective way to greatly improve the survival of many endangered species and enhance the sustainability of the fisheries.
The following day, our work involved undertaking a transect of the beach counting the number of stranded animals along the beaches of Ite. The transect started in the man-made wetlands, a project undertaken by a mining company to try and offset the environmental costs of their project. Miraculously in these waters, despite contamination, several water birds flourished, including several egret, duck and grebe species. The oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert clearly provided a big pull to several animals, providing a refuge in the Earth’s driest desert. It was a great place to start the day with good birdwatching available.
We then continued the transect along the beach, surveying the number of dead animals stranded on the beach. In just 6km of walking, it was truly shocking to see over 150 stranded animals. Cormorants provided the most numerous species, but many pelicans, boobies, and petrels were also found. The more harrowing sight though was the presence of several seals and porpoises, such majestic animals of the oceans. It was plain to see the effects that bycatch, polluted oceans and the El Niño weather event had had on the wildlife of the South-eastern Pacific.
After completing our fieldwork for the day, before heading back to Ilo we went in search for flamingos that had reportedly been seen in the area. This got me very excited, as I continued my quest to see these magnificent animals that had played an important role in my wildlife pursuits to date. Thinking we could see them in the distance, we went running off into the reeds looking for them. This was very reminiscent of the first time I saw wild flamingos in the outskirts of Montpellier two and a half years ago, where once again I went clambering through reeds to look for them. This time, luck was not on my side, and what I thought were flamingos in the distance turned out to merely be goats grazing the grass. Walking in the full sun with no shade for five hours clearly was getting to me! All was not lost though… As we took the bus back to Ilo, out the window I saw some pink dots in the distant wetlands, and low and behold they were indeed flamingos. It was not the greatest sighting I had ever had of flamingos, but nonetheless it was still very exciting for me, and became the third of six flamingo species worldwide I had seen in the wild. I was at last halfway to the full set!
A lot ‘o’ otter fun!
The final task of our week of fieldwork involved looking for sea otters along the coast between Ilo and Tacna. This took place over two days in two different locations – Quebrada de Burros and Tres Cruces. Our first location in Quebrada de Burros had previously been surveyed with evidence of sea otters living here. I was very excited to begin, hoping to see these sleek animals, having only briefly gained a glimpse of them in Ilo’s port.
The route involved passing over multiple rock pools and clambering over the rocky formations lining the sea. It was pretty adventurous, with several difficult rocks to climb, made even harder by the flaky slate the cliffs were made from. Despite a couple of close shaves with rock crumbling in my hand, I successfully overcame the terrain with only a few cuts and grazes to show for it. I definitely felt dedicated to my work, taking risks in all the name of science.
Fortunately, our travails were not in vain, as we were very lucky to find evidence of sea otters in the area. Looking in all of the cracks and crevices between the rocks we found several faecal samples, evidence that sea otters had recently been in the area. However, even better than that, we were able to observe with our own eyes that sea otters were around. On three different occasions I was able to see these beautiful animals in action, swimming in the sea and looking for prey. However, the most exciting sighting was the least expected of all. Whilst walking between two large rock formations to reach the next viewpoint, I was just watching my step, when suddenly a sea otter emerged from behind a rock just 20m away from me. I couldn’t believe one was so close and still it continued to come closer to within 10m of me. Not believing my eyes, I quickly called out to the others that there was an otter, but in the process I alerted the otter of our presence, and it made a hasty exit. Unfortunately for the others they only managed to get a glimpse of its tail as it scurried off, and that elusive otter photo continued to elude me. A very exciting moment nonetheless, and reinforced the reason why I love fieldwork!
The following day, our quest to see more sea otters continued. This time though, there had been no previous surveys in the area, so it was unknown whether otters were in the area. Again climbing over the rocks, we quickly found evidence of the presence of otters finding a faecal sample, but that was too be one of few. Few other signs existed that otters lived here, but eventually after a couple hours of tiring walking, we eventually saw one as we stopped for a break. At last, we had conclusive evidence that otters were here. A very exciting finding as they had never been observed here before!! All of this excitement took place in stunning scenery with beautiful rock formations, powerful waves hitting the coast and several seabird colonies. During the surveys we were lucky to see boobies, cormorants (including the rare red-legged cormorant) and even my first Peruvian endemic, the surf cinocloides!
These surveys brought our week of fieldwork to a close. A very tiring adventure, but extremely rewarding. It was great to see so many new species, and to experience the incredible marine life Peru has to offer firsthand. Definitely a great start to my time in Peru!