After a long overnight bus trip we arrive in Puerto Madryn, a small and very pleasant town which is the gateway to the isolated and desolate but magnificent Peninsula Valdes.
Peninsula Valdes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a “Natural Protected Area”. It is the marine life that makes this area so important and which draws the visitors. Within its protected borders, families continue to run the ranches that they have managed for more than a century, although some are now turning to tourism. Human activity is restricted, and the balance between conservation and recreation is monitored closely.
We are here to see whales so the four of us trawl the local operators to source a tour for the next day. We also manage to snag a deal for a sunset visit to a beach outside of town that evening.
We weren’t expecting a great deal from the beach visit. How wrong were we? We were amazed at how close the whales come to the beach. At least a dozen female whales with their new born young cruised by and played within yards of the beach. A truly incredible experience marred only by the dead and rotting whale carcass on the beach – possibly the worst stench we have experienced anywhere.
The next day we are collected by minibus and head off to the Peninsula Valdes itself for the whole day.
On the way we stop at the Interpretive Center, a museum of sorts and a complete waste of time. Our guide does not even bother to come in with us and we begin to wonder if we have chosen the right operator.
Driving an hour east on Ruta 2, we reach the tiny village of Puerto Piramides, which exists only to provide the main launching spot for the whale-watching boats.
The Southern Right Whales (so named because they move slowly and float easily, making them “right” for hunters). These gentle giants gather to mate in these bays just off the peninsula from April to December. Weighing 35 to 40 tons they measure about 17m (56 ft.) long. They are BIG! About 800 whales show up each year, after feeding in Antarctica for 3 months. After mating the male whales head off leaving the females to look after the young until they are strong enough to head back to Antartica.
We head out on our boat minus the guide who decides to stay behind. After leaving the shore, very soon we start to see lots of whales in the distance, a little further out and they start to approach the boat clearly unperturbed by the proximity of humans.
Apparently at this time of year there are approx. 800 whales and their young in the bay at any one time. After a while we see more and more, some of which come within 10 metres of the boat. Quite incredible listening to these guys. They are loud and can be heard from hundreds of metres away – spooky!
The Valdes Peninsula is the place of choice for the mating of these giant sea-going mammals. The mating rite is marked by the twists and turns of the courting dance, spectacular leaps into the air and crashing dives back into the sea, an exciting show that we are very lucky to have witnessed. It really is a moving experience.
- Several males at a time stir the foamy sea with antics that have little to do with their habitual behavior. They become aggressive with one another in their attempts to seduce the same female. The female resists at first, but eventually gives in to the charms of one of her suitors.
- The male’s reproductive organs store an enormous amount of semen (some 500 kilograms per testicle!!), enough to impregnate several females. When the female finally accepts the male’s overtures, sex takes place with both whales in a vertical position, facing one another, with their heads out of the water.
- The result of this encounter is the birth of a whale calf, 10 tons in weight, about five meters in length, and grows at a rate of 35 centimeters a day thereafter. Whale cows give birth once every three years and the gestation period is 12 months, then 12 months of Mum-Baby weaning/training.
We head north to Caleta Valdes, which is the place to see the elephant seals (all of which are sleeping). By this time our guide, who was not very good to start with (how can she translate 15 mins of Spanish into 30 seconds of English?) deteriorates rapidly, brushing her hair, chatting up the driver, sleeping – anything to avoid being a guide!
Next, it is off to see the really cute penguins hanging around on the cliff top. Some are in scooped out caves laying next to or on top of their penguin eggs, some just laying around but most are just standing around looking at the tourists..
It has been a long hot day cooped up in a crowded minibus with lots of sweaty strangers with possibly, the most useless guide in Argentina, but we have had a great day.
That evening, after a few beers on the terrace at the hostel, at Claudio’s suggestion, the four of us decide to head down to the pier the next morning at high tide so see whether we can see any more whales.
We see several whales and their calves just metres from the pier and further out there are many more leaping out of the water. This is the closest we have got to these amazing mammals and all without a guide!
Thursday, October 16, 2008