We make our way down the very steep hill, taking care to step on the firm bits of desert and not the loose sand which would cause us to plummet downwards, to get onto the plateau and out to the cliff face. The South American fur seal rookery is here, and this is the time of year that the males haul out to mate with the females, who are returning from the open ocean. South American Fur seals(Arctocephalus australis) are found down the coast of South America from the Paracas Penninsula, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. They are not a true seal, having the characteristics of sea lions including the flexible cervical vertebrae and ear flap, of the family Otarridae. Males are black in coloration, on average they weigh 150-200 kg and females are two toned and weigh an average of 30-50 kg. This fur seal has been slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, notably for its fur, and although this type of hunting is illegal in most countries the fur seal faces threats from poaching and from El Nino.
When we arrive at the cliff's edge and look down at the ocean, the first thing we see is a dead sea lion. "Probably killed by a fisherman" Carlos says as we pause for a moment of silence. The fishermen that are allowed to run their boats out of the reserve feel that the sea lions are stealing the anchovies, which is the prevalent species of the area. We move on.
As we move on, we pass giant cracks in the earth that are signs of the 2007 earthquake. Carlos points to a huge boulder far below on the beach. It is the size of a house, and crashed from the lip of the canyon to the rookery, effectively splitting it in half. At this point we can make out a handful of fur seals, all males Carlos says, hauled out on the rocks. From this point they look so small; "furry worms" was what an old marine biology instructor called the seals during a field trip to the California coast.
We walk to the far end of the cliff face, there is a stone wall where we stop to take drinks of water and begin the survey. There is a small wisp of land on the seaward side of the wall, and two of the chicas take their station with the binoculars. They are going to count males, females, and yearlings. Each chica takes turns doing a count, all the counts will be compared and calculated for standard error.
It's getting dark now, and the ever present humidity is turning to fog as the temperature cools down. Nevertheless, Carlos wants to move on to another rookery, I begin to wonder if he was joking about not joking when he said that we would be hiking in the western mountains.
It's really getting too dark to see the coloration patterns that distinguishes the females from the males, and the binoculars don't focus too well, so we head back. We have the light of an almost full moon on our side, and I think that we are going back the way we came but we head north across the vast expanse of plateau that we overlooked from the mountain top on the way in. This is a much longer route but it is easier traveling, everyone is tires, and also a long walk in the desert moonlight is the stuff journeys are made of. We will retire to our tents and tomorrow the plan is to look for strandings on the southern beaches in the morning, and we will also conduct a survey in the town of Paracas tomorrow afternoon. Buenas noches!