The Whales of the Valdes Pensinsula

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Our journey from Bariloche with Mar y Valle bus company, was our longest yet at 14 hours.  We left at 17.00 and arrived about 07.00 the next morning. We were only able to get the semi cama seats (which recline to 140deg, but there are 4 across the width of the bus, compared to cama seats which are 3 to a bus width and are more luxurious).  It wasn't too bad, they showed a couple of movies along the way.  Watching the "Bourne Ultimatum" dubbed in Spanish was OK, although I am not too sure whether that was because our Spanish is getting better or that there is very little dialogue in the film! The main problem, at least for Claudio and I, was getting any sleep, but at least I got a couple of hours.

We had managed to book a room at the El Returno Hostel but after lugging our backpacks through the town to the hostel, they had given our room to someone else- just what we needed after 14 hours on a bus (plus Carolyn was feeling really rough with a cold).   We tramped around the town to Hostel Viajero where we would stay for the next 3 days.

Puerto Madryn is a small and very pleasant town and the gateway to the Valdes Peninsula, which is very isolated and very barren. Sometimes you can go for hours without seeing another soul. All roads on the peninsula are gravel, and driving is hazardous to say the least. 

Peninsula Valdes is a World Heritage Site and despite this it is not a national park but a Natural Protected Area managed by the Province of Chubut.  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 although tourism is now the major player, the balancing game between conservation and recreation is monitored closely.

Keen to visit the peninsula and to go whale watching for a day, the four of us trawl the local tour operators to sort out the best deal.  (Again Claudio and Isa are wonderful at sorting things like this out, and getting a deal into the bargain).  We also manage to get a deal for a sunset visit to a beach outside of town that evening for some whale watching from the shore.  

Not sure how much we will see from the beach we are amazed at how close these giants come into the beach and we see at least a dozen female whales with their new born young. A truly amazing experience.  Having stayed around to watch the sunset, we drive back towards town and stop at another beach, with lunar like rock formations, to watch the moon rise which is particularly impressive as it is a full moon.  . 

The next day we are collected by minibus and head off to the Valdez peninsula 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 east for about an hour 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 (how did they know that there were no Japanese on board?).  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 apart from the sight of the whales, the other incredible experience is listening to them.  These guys are loud and can be heard making there whale sounds 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!

At the northeastern tip of the peninsula we reach Punta Norte where hundreds of sea lions congregate.  Orca whales can sometimes be seen off this point too, attracted by the sea lions - their favorite snack, but it the wrong time of year for them to come ashore here.

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 are jigging with their partners 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.

We head back to Puerto Madryn and ask to be dropped off at the tour operator so we can complain about the guide, but even Isa, who is Spanish and who has spent most of her life in the tourism/hospitality industry can't get us a refund so we just put it down to experience.

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.

Surprise, surprise, we see several whales and their calves just metres from the pier and further out they are  leaping up right out of the water.  This is the closest we have got to these amazing mammals and all without a guide (unless you count Claudio!). 

The whales are really difficult to photograph as they leap out in unexpected places and the camera takes so long to focus  -  often we just caught a splash, or a tail, or nothing at all.  Isa caught a bit of a whale as it was so close and so large that her camera could not fit it all in !   Despite this there are many photos here.  We apologise for the quality.
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