Whale watching in Argentina (June-August 2012)

Whale watching

The Southern Right Whale can be found in the southern hemisphere, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific Ocean and it always migrates to warmer waters to breed during the winter. The Right Whale is the slowest of all whales – moving with a speed which does not exceed 10 knots – and it got its name from the whalers who found it ‘the right whale’ to hunt, due to the fact that it was easy to approach and had a high economical value.

It can reach 15-18 meters in length and 50-70 tons in weight and it is easily recognizable because of the white parasites which inhabit its body, especially the head. In the South Atlantic Ocean, the Right Whale is travelling from Brazil to South Africa and South of Patagonia.

From June to October, lots of Right Whales are coming inside the Golfo Nuevo to breed and, for this reason, the entire Valdés Peninsula together with the two bays – Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose – are included in the protected UNESCO heritage area.

Valdes Peninsula, Argentina

Many tourists are visiting these territories during winter time and they are paying huge amounts of money (100$/person) in order to take part in the whale watching excursions which are organized by local travel agencies.

I was luckier than most of them as I had the chance of observing these huge animals more than once, in their natural environment and from a very close distance – from the deck of our vessel or from the pier, inside the harbor of Puerto Madryn – a small, but picturesque port, enclosed in the Golfo Nuevo.

It was the beginning of June when we first approached the Gulf and noticed few whales in the distance. Sometimes, we saw only their tails or flippers splashing around the water and making a lot of noise.

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Puerto Madryn Argentina - Whale watching (9)

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If the water was calm, we could see them few meters beneath the surface, moving graciously despite their heavy bodies.

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Puerto Madryn Argentina - Whale watching (33)

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In July, they started to arrive in big numbers. Some of them were males trying to impress the lonely females and convince them to mate. In order to do so, they were willing to make a huge effort of courtship and they were doing their best to find the perfect match.

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Others were females in search of companions ….

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… or females accompanied by their babies – newly born, or 2-3 years old – spending all day long teaching the offsprings how to feed themselves, how to survive and how to have fun. These females were not in the mood for mating and their only concern was taking care of their babies.

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Sometimes, some males were trying to convince these females to leave their grown up babies and start a new family. In some cases, they were successful. The females gave up their role as guardian and responded to the males’ affection, forcing the cubs to leave and face the reality of life on their own. Some of the cubs didn’t want to leave their ‘safe nest’ and continued to linger close to their mothers even when she started to mate with a new partner. They remained attached to the group for a few days more, moving around close to their mothers that already lost interest in them, until the males took control of their new family and chased away the old babies.

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Puerto Madryn Argentina - Whale watching (36)

I watched many scenes like these during my 2 month voyage in the area.

The best place for whale watching was inside the port, at the end of the pier – where the fishing vessels were docked. The whales used to come very close to the corner of the pier, almost touching it and they were doing this few times in a row before moving away, towards Puerto Piramides.

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Puerto Madryn Argentina - Whale watching (28)

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Regardless of the state of the sea, waves, outside temperatures or winds, the whales were following their regular route every day, continuously, telling me the story of their life and survival in these waters where they were born and where they returned to breed and give birth to new lives over and over again. I spent many hours on that pier during the months of June and July waiting for the whales. Sometimes, they were coming immediately after my arrival, in groups or alone, moving slowly along the pier, fully submerged and only with the head popping out of the water from time to time in order to breathe and exhale the jet of water.

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Sometimes I had to wait more than one hour before the first whale came into sight, but they were always coming sooner or later. I only had to wait patiently and the reward was soon to come. Walking was permitted inside the port and I could do this all day long without being disturbed. My only enemy was the weather.

At the beginning, the outside temperatures were not a big problem, but the wind blew heavily from time to time, paralyzing the harbor and delaying repeatedly the completion of cargo operations, hence the departure. From one point of view, I was happy. The longer we stayed alongside, the more chances I had to watch the whales, although I was forced to face the strong winds, covered from tip to toe in warm winter clothes. Then, as we were diving deeper into the southern winter, the temperatures dropped as low as 8-10 degrees during daytime and the wind blew fiercely, sometimes in gusts of 40-50 knots, making it impossible for me to go outside and walk on the pier. I was always happy when the wind calmed down and I was again allowed to go down on the pier and follow the whales as long as I wanted.

IF

During the two month voyage in South Patagonia, my vessel called the small Puerto Madryn six times, with average stays alongside of 35-40 hours. In the second half of July, as the weather was getting colder and the wind stronger, our stays in the ports got longer, with the longest one of 5 days. I always preferred the normal weather with mild winds because I was able to spend time outside – on the deck or on the pier – and these days were full of excitement and adrenaline.

Watching groups of whales in the vicinity of our vessel or following single individuals moving along the pier in the calm or troubled waters of Golfo Nuevo were my favourite activities during the day. In the night, I used to spend at least one more hour sorting out the photos and movies I took, trying to get rid of those which I didn’t like and finding the procedure always very difficult.

I will never forget the encounters with these wonderful creatures and I hope to go back to that area and have more time to study, observe and admire the gentle signs of love between partners, the powerful males jumping few meters outside the water and the fragile two tone cubs lingering close to their mothers.

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I will go back there one day and, even if this happens next year or in ten years from now, I will be more than happy to meet my ‘old friends’ again and spend even more time observing their behaviors. Life is following its usual path – for humans and animals alike – and the mating rituals are always the same. Only the participants are/may be different.

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