Patagonia Whale Tales
Trip Start Oct 04, 2009
70Trip End Nov 20, 2010
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Where I stayed
Hostel Punta Ballena
After spending more than a month absorbed into comfortable city life, we were excited to get closer to nature in Patagonia. The fact that whale season was in full swing might have had something to do with it. More than almost all marine life, I love whales. They are so impressive they make me nervously giddy, and they don't smell so much, unless they are making baby whales, which is weird to say. BUT now we know.
According to me, the Patagonia region has to be the best place to see whales in the world. It's like cheating - the water more resembles a lake than the ocean as it is so protected & calm that there are 2,000 whales camping out here for the winter up from Antarctica, making this the largest breeding ground of this whale in the world. I find it remarkable that the whales find the little inlet to this gulf every winter, but they are rewarded with warmer, shallower, and safer water for giving birth and breeding.
It also helps tourism that there are at least 5 whales are within 200 yards of the beach at all times, which seems a lot closer than that because they are 60 feet long and broad and basically huge.
Since the Southern Right Whales are so blubbery, they are extremely buoyant and they can swim surprisingly close to shore without being in danger of beaching themselves. This is also how they got their name, as they were the "right" whale to kill because they floated. I spent a significant amount of energy worrying about the safety of the whales. They are just SO close to the shore, I couldn't get over that they weren't stuck there, especially when they would just put their tail in the air for 45 seconds straight, you have to see the video. I am envisioning the whales doing a face plant-hand stand in order to pull off this maneuver and most definitely beached. I was convinced we would find the whale on the beach the next morning, but was of course relieved not too.
It's like the whales know they have spectators sitting on the beach, but in reality they are playing with the wind and communicating with their fins and tails. I liked to think that they were teaching the youngins how to do all the typical whale stuff as it seemed the babes just copied everything their mother did. It makes for such easy nature photography - we actually shared our hostel with a National Geographic photog there for exactly this reason.
Since there is an around-the-clock free whale show from the shore, you don't even have to do a whale watch, but you'd be silly not too. Just take the public bus to Puerto Piramides for $4 USD and pay the new park entrance fee of 70 pesos ($18 USD) and then 150 pesos ($38 USD) for a 1.5 hour marine life close encounter. There are tours that include a trip to the sea lions, seals and penguins, but we heard they rushed you through an exhausting day when really the highlight here is the WHALES. And that's what we had our heart set on and the day dedicated to. The golden retrievers were just a plus and would practically kill themselves to fetch a stick for us. Gosh, I love dogs. I cannot wait to have a dog or to see my Oliver when I head home for Thanksgiving. These friendly dogs were such a tease and were perfect company on the cliffs and beach until they started humping my legs like crazy. Andy was too amused to be of any help and just started videoing my struggle. Whales and dogs videos in the same place, awesome.
The gulf is so calm you can tour in a pretty small watercraft, and even I didn't get seasick, which is shocking. The boat didn't want to get too close to the mothers and babies to avoid scaring them so we spent the majority of time bouncing between mating pods. The whales were so close to the surface and the boat you could see the white growths on their heads above the water and below. They also had long arching mouths as if they were smiling. We had a tour guide all to ourselves as the only English speaking tourists aboard and maybe there was a bit of language barrier in effect, but the tour guide was extremely graphic in explaining the breeding activity of the Southern Right Whales. I am talking extremely specific. Here we are, boating along, just squealing with excitement watching these huge, curious creatures swim innocently right up to the boat and we have our tour guide using words like "penetration" and "horny" and explaining the purposeful position of the whale's vagina.
I mean, yes, of course, I'd like to know how the mating pods work and what we're looking at. Maybe even learn that the testicle of this particular whale is the largest of any animal at up to 1 ton. I also did find it interesting to know that up to 20 male whales non-competitively mate with one female and then vacate the scene for the whale to become a single mom. I just think Andy and I weren't prepared to receive an awkwardly detailed lesson on the magic of whale reproduction while actually watching it happen 15 feet from our faces. I think I would've been content believing the cute whales were playing and cuddling. We were feeling a little pervy and voyeuristic, but it did look impressive with the whales being so close to each other and us. If you have any questions about were whales come from, let us know.
I thought the satisfaction and excitement of spotting a whale would grow old after about the 200th one, but I found them equally if not increasingly fascinating for five straight days. By the third day, we weren't even taking pictures, just pointing and giggling at how cute the little baby whale faces were and how we could predict the whale’s movements. It was almost too easy to spot a whale, but somehow that didn't take away from the fascination of watching all their activity, especially breaching, which they conveniently always do in sequences. We caught a few really thrilling breaching sequences. Andy was even able to get me up to watch the sunrise since there were whales involved. Whales make everything better. Even the morning.
If your vision is anything like Andy’s and 200 yards isn’t quite close enough for whale viewing, you head to El Doradillo beach, the best place to view from the shore due to the steepness of ocean floor and a popular place to give birth and raise young. Whales are literally a few meters from shore during high tide using the ocean floor to help support the young who are not yet buoyant. For us, high tide was at 10AM, but it changes drastically so look it up. As with the rest of the Argentina, nothing is open before 9AM so we rented overpriced bikes as early as possible and started our 17K ride. Even though the bikes were small enough for children and stuck in high gears, we estimated it would take about 45 minutes to whale viewing bliss. What we didn’t estimate was that the entire road would be under construction. The hilly surface was quicksand-like gravel and each passing car violently sprayed us with a suffocating cloud of dust. I think you could see the whales from everywhere except this road so the ride was entirely uncomfortable and unattractive. As high tide came and began passing, taxi cabs would speed by us bringing tourists to the beach WE were supposed to be at already, for probably half the price of the stupid crappy bikes. By the time we got there at half past 10, we were exhausted. Even though the tide was clearly going back out, we were still amazed at how close the whales seemed. Even closer than at the city beach. It was also incredible at how few people we had to share this with. The beach was practically empty except for maybe 15 people dotting up and down the coast.
While walking our bikes toward the second sandy lookout point, we came across a big black fin. I was a little alarmed by how fresh it looked and thinking about how it had been detached. That’s when I walked further inland from the water and came across our first sun-dried whale skin. It was still so easy to identify and clearly not the source of the more fresh looking fin, that I wasn’t excited to see what all the birds were crowding around up ahead. It looked like the park had cut the whale open to be more easily consumed by the birds and decompose, either that or birds can cut whale into perfect squares, but it was not pretty. Maybe this little guy really got beached when the tide changed or just didn't survive birth. At least there was only one.
We distanced ourselves from the bird feast to enjoy our ham & cheese & cucumber sandwiches and continued to marvel at how close the whales were and hoping they were all safe. Some, we were convinced were about to suffer the same fate and then we would be relieved to see them swim farther and farther from shore, spraying and splashing around. We stayed for hours and hours, practically alone, putting off the dreaded return bike ride for as long as the sun would allow us.
Although the winter isn’t the area’s busiest time, it's still remarkable to me that Puerto Madryn isn't more built up already – it’s an incredible experience to get to close to nature here. Also, everything in town is in walking distance and there's no need to go farther than the beach for the main attractions. Tourism is clearly on the rise though with lots of new beachfront construction in the works. It's somewhere I am excited to return to with my family someday soon before this place gets overdone, hopefully during Orca season.