Gallumphing Towards Punta Norte

Random thoughts of violence from our man in Argentina

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

In terms of bellicose behavior, the fauna of the Vald‰s Peninsula on the southeast coast of Argentina pretty much take the natural-history cake. Situated a little less than halfway between Buenos Aires and Cape Horn, the peninsula looks like an enormous hatchet thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean. Filmed scenes of the carnage at a place called Punta Norte, on the north end of the peninsula, live in the minds of millions of people, though the actual geography, I suspect, is a bit vague.

Here is one of those scenes: A baby sea lion is trundling along the brown pebbly beach, something of Charlie Chaplin in its endearing, awkward manner. In the surf, several large black dorsal fins, some of them six feet high, saw back and forth through the waves. Bring up the "uh-oh" music.

Close on the baby sea lion, all bright-eyed innocence and bewilderment. It is what biologists call "fubsy." The theory has it that we, as humans, are hardwired to protect our progeny, and as a result we are also instinctively protective of creatures that possess attributes common to human infants. Clumsy animals, preferably chubby ones with large eyes, big heads, and short limbs, are said to be fubsy. This baby sea lion is so excessively fubsy that we are convinced it cannot long survive.

And so it is. On a crashing, discordant note, an immense black-and-white killer whale, an orca, makes a run for the shore, powering in through the surf and skidding right up onto the sloping beach. It's a big male weighing perhaps a ton, and it snaps up the baby sea lion like a canap‰, shaking it about this way and that because orcas just hate it when their hors d'oeuvres fight back. The triumphant killer then slides back down the slope of the beach in a series of side-to-side lurches.

Several years ago, the wildlife filmmaker Paul Atkins spent six weeks at Punta Norte, shooting for the BBC series The Trials of Life with David Attenborough. Working with the camera half in and half out of the water, he filmed the orca attacks — the killer whales charging and the sea lions fleeing. Equally compelling was his footage of the mating behavior of both elephant seals and southern sea lions, which is often brutal and bloody.

This was just one hourlong segment of The Trials of Life, an elegant and thoughtful 12-part series. Sometime after the series aired, video rights were sold to Time-Life in the United States, and that company flogged a home video set in a commercial on late-night television, using the most violent clips from the series. The commercial postulated a natural world consisting entirely of fang and claw and running blood. Hey, folks, it seemed to shout, how'd ya like to see animals you never even knew existed fight to the death before your very eyes? The announcer's tag line was, "Why do you think they call 'em animals?"

The commercial generated more than $100 million in sales, an astounding figure. Talk show pundits took serious issue with the noisome nature of the commercial, and the BBC regretted letting go of the series for what is reported to have been a paltry sum; meanwhile, millions of people watched a thoughtful David Attenborough presentation, apparently not at all disappointed that it wasn't, in fact, some kind of natural-history snuff film.

Never mind. I was going to Punta Norte solely for the solace of violence. A project I'd recently submitted had just been seriously shredded and left bleeding on the beach.

A few miles beyond Puerto Piramide, on the very handle of the Vald‰s hatchet, the pavement ends, and I drove my rental car slowly past a series of signs the Argentine government has erected to alert drivers that the gravel roads ahead are, in fact, malignant death traps. Slow down, the signs say. Don't pass. Respect the speed limit, watch out for animals crossing, slow down when approaching other vehicles, slow down altogether, se±or, for the love of God and all his saints, we implore you, the dead implore you from their graves ...

Another sign, somewhat off the subject, advises "amigo turista" that the entire peninsula is a reserve for the flora and fauna of the area. There is no camping, no hunting, no trekking, no rock collecting, and along many stretches of road, no stopping to get out of the car. Period.

The land itself is littered with sagelike plants and spare grasses. To some eyes, this treeless interior plain seems flat and featureless, though it rises and falls in a series of gentle undulations, like great sighs.

I saw a gray fox moving through the grasses and low, thorny bushes; it paused and stood like a dog on point, staring at a covey of crested tinamous, a bird I would call a partridge. In the distance, vultures drifted on thermals above what I imagined to be my recently eviscerated project. A lesser rhea, South America's version of the ostrich, trotted along ahead of me at about 15 miles an hour. Guanacos, genus Lama, were present in abundance. They were completely wild, and their heavy-lidded and extravagantly lashed eyes gave them an air of voluptuous indolence. Dust devils spinning over the land kicked up hundred-foot-high funnels of sandy brown soil, which approached one another and then retreated, as pretty as do-si-do.

The land did not fall off to the sea, but rose almost imperceptibly, like the lip on a dinner plate. Clay gave way to sand, and sea grasses rose all about in greenish-brown clumps. I was now moving north along the Atlantic coast, at the head of the Vald‰s hatchet, and decided to pull off at an empty but apparently legal parking lot.

A short path ended at a cliff face perhaps 700 feet high. The headlands, which rose to more than 1,000 feet in some places, were ridged with the mark of retreating seas. They extended 20 miles in either direction, curving about in preposterous looping arcs that formed windswept coves and bays.

I found a spot out of the wind, ate lunch, drank some wine for my health, and contemplated my professional career. It was as if the project manager had said something like, "Look Tim, this Mona Lisa thing is pretty good as far as it goes, but what's with the smile? Hell, don't get us wrong, we like enigmatic as much as the next guy, but couldn't you dial it up or down a little. Make it just a little more accessible?"

My choices were surrender or defeat. I resolved to consider the matter a little later, in the presence of inspirational bellicosity, and settled back to read a bit. Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings seemed appropriate: an Argentine author dealing with strange and often violent creatures born in the minds of the strangest and most violent of all animals. Somewhere just past page 82 (a description of the eastern dragon), I felt myself drifting off into a hazy, somnolent reminiscence.

I was, I imagine, six years old, a fubsy little guy, and my father, who was a font of zoological misinformation, had just informed me that frogs were birds, as in the terrifyingly unforgettable poem, "What a funny little bird the frog are / him ain't got no tail hardly / and when him jump / him bump his little tail / which him ain't got no hardly."

My father also said that in certain isolated lakes set dreaming in remote Wisconsin forests, there lived a rare fish, called the goofang, that swam backward in order to keep water out of its eyes. And the gillygaloo, a bird that nested on steep slopes and laid its eggs square so they wouldn't roll down the hill.

Many of the creatures in my father's whimsical menagerie, I now realize, derive from the legends of Paul Bunyan. With the exception of the frog poem, which presents itself unbidden for my contemplation about once every two weeks, I hadn't thought about the illusory creatures that inhabit the Wisconsin of Remembrance in some time.

The Borges book brought it all back. One of the great authors of the 20th century, Borges stumbled onto mystical Wisconsin fauna about the same time my dad was telling me about the goofang. In 1955, Borges was made director of the Argentine National Library, where he discovered "a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out of the way erudition." The Book of Imaginary Beings, then, is an effort to harvest the literature of the world for "strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination." Described within, one finds banshees, fairies, dragons, gnomes, elves, golems, garudas, doppelg„ngers, sirens, manticores, minotaurs, and nagas. More to the point, under the heading "Fauna of the United States," I found listings for the gillygaloo and the goofang.

It was, however, the entry titled "Fauna of Mirrors" that lodged itself like a burr in my imagination, where it took up permanent residence somewhere near the dreaded frog poem. In the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor, so the people of southern China say, the world of mirrors and the world of men were not separated, as they are now. "They were, besides," Borges wrote, "quite different; neither beings nor colors nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors." One night the mirror people invaded the earth, and there was bloody warfare, yet the "magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed." The invaders were imprisoned in their mirrors and "forced to repeat, as though in a dream, all the actions of men." Spells, however, erode with the passage of time, and soon enough, the story goes, the shapes in the mirror will begin to stir. "Little by little they will differ from us," Borges wrote, "little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barrier of glass and metal and this time will not be defeated."

As if it wasn't hard enough to look in the mirror.

During the second apocalyptic attack, the warriors behind the glass, so it's said, will be joined by "the creatures of the water." Which, I suppose, would include sea lions, elephant seals, and orcas. Plenty of these were waiting for me 30 miles ahead, at Punta Norte. I expected it to be a sanguinary experience.

There were elephant seal calves at Punta Norte when I visited, but no adults were in evidence. The season of mating and giving birth (September) had long since passed, and adult males and females were out feeding, diving to depths of 4,000 feet while the recently weaned calves basked on the beach, looking, really, like so many blubbery slugs. Very occasionally one of the weanlings moved a dozen feet or so, hunching up and down, in the manner of a caterpillar. I am pleased to report that the precise scientific term used to describe this process is "gallumphing."

During the mating season, 15-foot-long males, weighing in excess of four tons, hold a section of beach against all comers, fighting savagely to control a harem of females. Altercations between males begin with a gallumphing together, followed by a face-to-face staring contest. And these are seriously goofy faces: A male elephant seal is possessed of an inflatable proboscis that looks a bit like an upraised elephant's trunk. The combatants stand high on the tips of their front flippers, backs arched, and tower seven feet into the troubled gray sky. The animals collide, belly to belly, like sumo wrestlers, all the while butting heads like bar fighters. The butts become bites to the throat. Mouths agape, both heads rise and fall swiftly, like axes tearing into flesh. There is much blood, and it is usually all over in less than a minute, the loser gallumphing away in adipose ignominy.

On this bright summer day in January, however, the southern sea lions were the show. The males are much heavier in the head and upper torso than their northern cousins and range in color from a golden brown to a deep, almost iridescent black. They have upturned noses and manes sculpted in extravagant layers, a style popular among TV evangelists. In point of fact, the male's skull carries a ridge of bone that protrudes, front to back, like a Mohawk haircut, and is designed to hold the great weight of muscle running down from the head and neck. It must have been a great strain to sit eyes forward, supporting the enormous weight, and so the males stared into the sky, heads balanced on their collars of muscle and blubber, in attitudes of magnificent disdain.

It used to be thought that female southern sea lions had no choice in mating, but recent research suggests that this is not so. Human male observers might imagine that the female calls out loudly and often in deep appreciation of the male's copulatory efforts. In fact — and it took female researchers to divine this — the female may be drawing attention to herself, saying, in effect, to the other males on the beach, "Hey, if you can get this big lug offa me, I'm yours." Thus, it's conjectured, they assure themselves that their progeny will carry the genes of the strongest male in attendance.

The pups, bleating like sheep, frolicked in the water, and there were no orcas to be seen, which was a bit of a relief, to tell the truth. The adult males, called los machos, roared very like lions, and their fights — there was one every two or three minutes — were brutal and brief, a matter of seven or eight tearing bites. The combatants, streaming blood, then turned away from each other and sat, back to back, heads in the air, three feet apart, like a couple of 650-pound bookends.

I felt my own chest swelling in what can only be described as a wholly fatuous case of sympathetic testosterone poisoning. It was clear that I couldn't win my own upcoming battle. So what? I'd inflict what wounds I could and leave 'em bleeding, if only a little bit. And then, by God, I'd turn away from the conflict, streaming blood, but with my head held high in an attitude of magnificent disdain.

On the beach, I saw males at war, females devoted to no one, and the pups all fubsy in the water. It was like looking into a mirror, and the mirror people were us, only we were distorted in strange ways — why do you think they call us animals? — and then, it seemed to me, thin cracks started from the center of this warped reflection, and the mirror began to bulge, ever so slightly.

Suddenly, a familiar assertion rose up, entirely unbidden, and fully illuminated the universe as I knew it.

I thought, "What a funny little bird the frog are." Not that frogs are birds, or that sea lions are humans, but it is surely possible to see them as translucent images shimmering deep within the mirror.

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