The Southern Right whales of the Valdes Peninsula, Argentina.
I had never been whale watching before, never seen whales before, but as I happen to be in Puerto Madryn and it was October, I thought may as well go and have a look. So I got on the bus to the boat dock, and hung around there for a while. In fact I took a short walk up the hill behind the dock, and I could see half a dozen dark shapes circling in the bay. Looking down at the dock I realised that my fellow watchers were all boarding so I scampered down and was last up the gangplank. Being last, there were no obvious spaces left, so I moved right to forwards and found a space almost on the sharp pointy bit at the front. As we headed out into the bay I was aware of a few splashes here and there, and we moved slowly towards a couple of the dark shapes.
Valdes Peninsula quick facts.
- Southern Right whales gather June-December, October is peak month.
- Up to 500,000 Magellan penguins from October to March.
- Elephant seals mostly calve in October.
- Sea lions calve in December - January.
- Orcas can be seen 'beaching' in March to catch Sea lion pups.
- It is also possible to see rhea, flamingoes, guanacos and much more.
As we got closer to the whales, I edged forward, initially sitting with a leg dangling either side of the bowsprit, and eventually lying along it. My first thoughts were that this was uncomfortable, and inconvenient as I couldn’t stand up to get a decent view, however as we got closer I realised that I was in position 1A. In 1987 whale watching was still a young industry, and the good and necessary guidelines that we have today didn’t exist. As we edged towards the whales we got close, very close sometimes and from my vantage position it almost seemed that I was directly above the whales. I was spoilt, but even though it was my first time, I soon realised that this was something special, and it was this experience that really set me on the road to Wildlife Extra. We probably saw something like 8 pairs of mother and calves that day, including a mother with a white (albino?) calf, we saw breaching whales, flukes, fins, blows and splashes.
To put the photos in perspective, this was 1987 and I was backpacking around South America for a year. Carrying all my worldly goods on my back, a big heavy camera with chunky lenses was not an option, so I had a Canon Sureshot Tele. Well, as the cruise progressed I had no idea what an extraordinary morning I was having. There are not many Southern Right whales left now, and there were fewer in 1987. And most of them seemed to be in the bay that day. My camera hardly had any kind of zoom at all, and no fancy effects so I hope you can appreciate just how amazing it was.
As we made our way back to the dock I was feeling a mix of emotions: elation at what I had seen; emotional exhaustion after such a special morning; and disappointment at the end of the cruise and the end of my first whale watching. After a quick lunch we were off to the end of the peninsula to see some Elephant seals (sea lions can be seen later in the season). I glimpsed a few guanaco (Like Llamas, but thinner) and rhea (South Americas smaller version of the ostrich and emu) and after a brief stop to see the sea-lions, we pulled up at the beach where the seals were. Well, I tell you, if you ever get the chance to see Elephant seals, take it. They are huge, much bigger than I had ever imagined, and the bulls were cavorting around the beach arguing over the much smaller females.
As I sat and watched these monsters, I noticed a splash in the periphery of my vision away down the beach. I wondered along the beach past more Elephant seals to where I thought the splashes had come from, and there were 2 more dark shapes just lying in the surf just a few yards off shore. I sprinted the last 50 yards and arrived just in time to see one of the huge beasts lift itself from the water and come crashing back down. I lifted my trusty camera and pulled the trigger without even having time to lift it to my eye. I fired from the hip. I then had twenty glorious minutes sat on the pebbles watching as two Southern Right whales played in the surf barely 30 feet from the shore. It seemed as if the water would barely be deep enough for me to swim in, let alone for a whale to breach. As I was backpacking I had to wait until I got back to the UK some 4 months later before I could get the films developed, and the wait was interminable.
Even now we were not yet finished, there was just the matter of 300,000 penguins to see and walk amongst. But my bolt was shot; I had nothing left to give in the appreciation stakes.
The Valdes Peninsula area is one of the most important breeding grounds in the world for Southern Right whales. They were so easy to hunt (thus they were the ‘right whale’) that they were the first of the great whales to be threatened with extinction; consequently they were protected as early as the 1930s. There are now still less than 5000 left, but this is a big increase over 40 years ago. They can also be seen around the coasts of South Africa and Australia.
Since that first time, I have watched whales at Kaikoura in New Zealand, west Cork in Ireland, Akureyii in Iceland, off Vancouver Island in Canada and South Africa, and none of them have matched that first time in Argentina, not even close.