Antonella Romano / FST
Another whale season is in progress in Puerto Madryn, with tourists eagerly boarding boats for encounters with the southern right whales that come to give birth and mate in the gulf in front of the southern Argentine port city every winter. Numerous “ooohs” and “aaahs” are the passengers’ gut reactions to the huge cetaceans’ tail lobbing, breaching, and orgies in which several males court a female that plays hard to get by turning over on her back just beneath the water surface.
In this part of the world, where they have been protected for more than 30 years, these animals are gentle and curious. While their tail lobbing probably obeys the physiological dictates of their species, one can’t help but suspect that they also do it to hear the human chorus that such activity invariably elicits.
When the skipper sights the distinctive V-shaped blow that indicates the presence of a whale of this species, he approaches to within a prudent distance, turns off the motor and waits to see if the animal accepts their presence. If it doesn’t, it swims off and they look for a more amiable individual. However, most whales do like visitors, to the point that they swim beneath the boat to observe it from both sides, giving passengers plenty of time to take pictures.
See Alexis Fioramonti's impressive video on their behavior at http://www.puertopiramides.gov.ar/turismo/media-documentalistas.htm, and watch the Vigilia de las Ballenas, 12 hours of filming daily from May 29 to June 1 on www.lupacorp.com/ballenas/index.php. Read more about them at http://www.icb.org.ar/.
This species owes its name to its range – the southern seas from Antarctica to the Indian Ocean – and to being what whalers consider to be the “right” one to hunt: it is big, offers a high yield of oil, is a slow swimmer that is easy to hunt, and floats when killed.
It is a baleen whale that feeds by swimming with its mouth half open, harvesting krill and other zooplankton on the sieve-like whalebone (or baleen) suspended from each side of its upper jaw.
Males may be up to 15.5 meters long and females 17.5 meters, with weights ranging from 45 to 60 tons. Calves can be 4 to 6 meters long and may weigh as much as 10 tons at birth.
Southern right whales were hunted for 300 years for the oil rendered from their fat, and their particularly soft whalebone, which was much in demand for the garments that were considered fashionable in the 19th century. Between 1835 and 1845 alone, 19,000 were killed. Today the total population is estimated at 7,000 to 12,000 animals.
Golfo Nuevo, the enormous blue gulf in front of Puerto Madryn, is a favorite nursery spot because its curved embrace confuses the sonar of the orcas that feed on helpless newborn calves. Many females give birth in deep water close to the shore in places like the Doradilla Beach a few kilometers from town.
Females get pregnant about every three years. Gestation takes 12 months, calf raising another year. During the four to six months that they are in the gulf, the mother nurses the calf and teaches it the feeding and diving techniques it will need to survive in the open sea. During this period, the calf puts on weight at a rate of 50 to 60 kilos a day.
The first whales arrive in the gulf from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds in late May, the last leave in December. During the time they are there, they eat virtually nothing, living on accumulated fat. So if you want to see lots of whales full of vim and vigor, go in June, July or August. That’s also when it’s coldest in the gulf.
But if you go in October, you will see Magellanic penguins – which are present in the region from September to April – as well as the whales. The biggest colonies are at Punta Tombo 181 km south of Puerto Madryn, and the San Lorenzo ranch, 160 km to the north, on the Valdés Peninsula.
September-November is also elephant seal breeding season, when huge blubbery males with elephantine proboscises rear up and do battle over harems on the beaches.
Orcas are there from October to April to snatch elephant seal and sea lion pups from the surf on certain open sea beaches of the Valdés Peninsula. Tourists who are not professional photographers with a permit to take photos from behind special blinds above those beaches may be able to see the action from a greater distance through field glasses.
However, sea lions are around all year round, albeit in places that must also be viewed through field glasses. Only scuba divers outfitted and guided by one of the diving companies in Puerto Madryn may experience close encounters with these animals.
The best year-round bet of all are the little black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins that can be sighted from boats that operate out of the port of Rawson. The skipper doesn’t have to go looking for them; they come zooming in as fast as torpedoes, breaching at the bow, alongside, and in the wake of the boat.
Words to the wise
The odds. Signing up for a whale watching cruise is like buying a lottery ticket. The gulf is enormous and the animals may be anywhere in it. It is very likely that you will see one, but you should also accept the possibility that you may not, and there will be no refund.
Weather conditions. In addition, departures of boats from the official whale watching port of Puerto Pirámides on the Valdés Peninsula are contingent to weather conditions. If the wind is producing nasty swells, the boats will not go out, and if the weather changes for the worse in the middle of a cruise they will return to port early (and you will thank them for doing so). Those are the rules of the game for nature tourism in this part of the world.
Attire. Keep a windbreaker and waterproof jacket at hand in a knapsack, in case the outfitter doesn’t provide them, or has none left in your size when you get there. Sunblock and sunglasses are also musts, even when it's cloudy.
Competition for a place. Each whale watching cruise lasts about an hour and a half, and boats do not wait for latecomers. That means that all the passengers of a minibus that arrives late because some members of the group could not get up early enough to be ready at the departure time established for their hotel will have to kick their heels in Puerto Pirámides for an hour and a half until the next boat goes out.
Remember too that the closer your hotel is to the beginning of the travel agency’s pickup route, the better seat you will get for the trip out to Puerto Pirámides. Those who are last on the list will be able to sleep a bit longer, but they will also get the worst seats (at the back, or without leg room).
Gravel roads. The stretch of road between Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides is paved, but beyond the turnoff to the whale watching port it’s all gravel. Those who have rented a car should continue past the turnoff only if they are experts at driving on gravel.
Lodging location. People who are interested mainly in whale watching and life in a small beach town should stay in one of the hotels or inns in Puerto Pirámides for a couple of days. That way, they can walk straight onto the first boat out in the morning. When they get their fill of whales, they can move elsewhere.
Those who want an extraordinary experience in accommodation, gourmet food and a variety of contacts with nature should spend a few days at the El Pedral Lodge, a refurbished 1920s Normandy-style farmhouse on Punta Ninfas at the northern entrance to the Golfo Nuevo.
Commerson’s dolphin excursions go from Puerto Madryn to the departure point in Rawson. But they also leave from the city of Trelew, which has an impressive paleontological museum and is
much closer to Rawson, the penguin rookery at Punta Tombo, and Gaiman, center of the Welsh side to the province of Chubut, where many of the first settlers moved after disembarkation in Puerto Madryn in the 19th century.
For more information on lodging and excursions in this area of Chubut, call the Puerto Madryn Tourist Office at (02965) 453-504 and the Trelew Tourist Office at (02965) 420-139, and see http://www.madryn.gov.ar/turismo and http://www.trelewpatagonia.gov.ar/ . In Buenos Aires, stop by the Casa del Chubut at Sarmiento 1172, or call 4383-7458.PHOTO CREDITS: Passengers are fascinated by a tail lobbing show in the Golfo Nuevo, Bonnie Tucker. Illustration of southern right whale, www.puertopiramides.gov.ar. Whale orgy, Bonnie Tucker. Whale breaching sequence, www.puertopiramides.gov.ar. Penguins on the beach of the San Lorenzo ranch, Valdés Peninsula, Bonnie Tucker. Watching Commerson's dolphins near Rawson, Toninas Adventure. Secure atop the trailer, a whale watching boat is pulled on shore by a tractor in Puerto Pirámides, BonnieTucker. El Pedral lodge at Punta Ninfas, BonnieTucker. Map, FST staff.