As we leave the harbour, I can’t help but think our boat is a little on the small side.
The feeling is only reinforced when I hear one, sighing from somewhere – it sounds like everywhere – beneath us. Soon afterwards, I’m looking it right in the eye, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s looking right back at me.
Aesthetically speaking, Argentina’s Patagonian coastline can’t compete with the enchanting lagoons and snow-capped scenery of the Andes. But the real draw is found offshore, feeding and breeding in the churning South Atlantic.
Every year, the UNESCO World Heritage site Península Valdés draws over 100,000 visitors looking for a glimpse of the exotic marine wildlife that migrates to this part of the world in the Southern Hemisphere spring. Immediately south of the peninsula, which protrudes like a kidney from Argentina’s eastern flank, Golfo Nuevo is a sheltered natural bay that holds one of the largest populations of Southern Right Whales in the world.
The whales are undoubtedly the main attraction, but our day trip from nearby Puerto Madryn begins with smaller, more manageable creatures. As our minibus bounces along dusty dirt tracks, we see some of the guanacos (think llamas) and rheas (think ostriches) that stalk the reserve’s 3,500kms. Sheep reared on local estancias graze where they can. It’s not long since breakfast, but the sight of our woolly friends gets me thinking about dinner – barbecued lamb is a local speciality and tender cuts are served in most Patagonian restaurants.
It’s when we get to Punta Cantor, on the east coast of the peninsula, that things take a turn for the bigger. They may not be quite as large as whales, but four-tonne elephant seals are nothing to sniff at – not that you’d want to with the pungent odour these beasts give off.
On the beach, three males are sprawled out along the sandy beach, each accompanied by up to a dozen females. These harems are the trophies for winning fierce territorial battles, and some alpha bulls can enjoy the services of over fifty concubines at a time.
“They are arranged like a buffet,” quips Valerie, our guide for the day, “for the orcas”. Península Valdés is one of the few places in the world where intelligent killer whales have learned how to pick off unsuspecting seal pups right from the beach. Photographers from all over the world camp out for months hoping to capture one of nature’s rarest predators in action. We’ve only got an hour, and despite spending it all willing the appearance of a dorsal fin, nothing happens.
The seals on the beach certainly don’t seem too worried as they scratch and yawn their way into the late afternoon. We find out later that this apathy is actually critical for survival: conserving energy is vital during the breeding season, when the fasting seals can lose up to a third of their body weight.
The highlight of the tour is saved for last, and the sun is dipping as we wait for our speedboat in Puerto Piramedes, the peninsula’s only inhabited town. We are briefed in disconcerting right whale dimensions: adult females can weigh up to 60 tonnes and reach over 15 metres in length, while males have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom (around 500kg each). Fortunately, we are assured, these are gentle giants, who almost never try to mate the boat.
We soon find out the whales are also curious: sightseeing boats are forbidden from getting too close to the whales, but no one can stop them approaching us. Out in the gulf, a pair glides by nonchalantly, taking a good look at us while spraying V-shaped fountains through their twin blowholes.
Their inquisitive nature is charming, but it didn’t always serve the right whales well. They are endangered animals, historically victims of extensive whaling due to their slow speed and generous blubber content (the name was given because this was the ‘right’ whale to be harpooning). In modern Argentina, they are considered a natural monument, and protected by law from the moment they enter the country’s territorial waters. The only attacks they face now come from flocks of seagulls jealously guarding the local fish supply.
Today’s whales seem to enjoy their privileged status, showing off with spectacular jumps and photogenic tail splashes. It’s chaos on the boat, as everyone tries to look in every direction at once, desperate not to miss any action.
It is only when one gets really close that a respectful silence falls over the group. Faced with such grandeur it’s impossible to think of anything to say, and those who try only spoil the magical moment. After 90 minutes, the captain turns us around and takes us back to port, accompanied for much of the way by one particularly playful whale.
Size Isn’t Everything
Peninsula Valdés is the obvious starting point for any trip to these parts, but it’s just a tiny patch on a rugged coastline full of wildlife watching opportunities. Our next stop is Rawson, the capital of Chubut Province and the first town to be established by 19th century Welsh pioneers. Here we board another boat, this time searching for Commerson’s dolphins. A patchwork of black and white, Commerson’s look a bit like small Orcas, and are the closest we get to the elusive beast. A fierce wind swirls and ominous rain clouds threaten, but the dolphins are delightful, ducking and weaving around the boats and surfing the bow wave.
Another 120km along the coast is the Punta Tombo reserve, home to the largest colony of Magellanic Penguins on the continent. Upwards of one million knee-high penguins nest here from September to April, braying like donkeys and filling the air thick with the smell of regurgitated fish. With their innocent faces and awkward Charlie Chaplin walk, these penguins are endlessly entertaining, though the park rangers warn that there is nothing funny about their sharp beaks.
On the way back to the car, we stop to allow a penguin to cross the path ahead. It pauses too, gives us a look, and then preens itself for several minutes while we wait.
Not for the first time this trip, it’s obvious who’s in charge here.
Southern Right Whales arrive in May and hang around until December, but best is late September to November, when penguins and elephant seals are also most active. Few are lucky enough to see an Orca hunting baby seals, but February-April is generally considered the best time to try.
Many tour agencies in Puerto Madryn offer full day excursions to Península Valdés, costing from $300, including entrance to the national park. Check to see if the excursion you book includes the whale watching boat trip, as this can be an expensive extra ($270). A cheaper option is to take one of the frequent local buses to Puerto Piramedes, where you can book a boat trip directly or just watch the whales from the beach.
Long distance bus travel in Argentina is comfortable – several daily departures from Buenos Aires take around 20 hours to reach Puerto Madryn, with prices starting at $550. Alternatively, the two-hour flight with Aerolineas Argentinas to nearby Trelew will set you back $980 each way.
Punta Tombo is a further 180km south along the national highway Ruta 3. Regular buses won’t stop there, so to visit the reserve you will need to join an organised tour or hire a car. Both are easily organised from Trelew.