The vast coastline of Argentina, some 4,989 km long, is home to numerous magnificent sights, but none quite so extraordinary as the sight of one of the greatest gatherings of whales anywhere on the planet. Hundreds of Southern Right Whales arrive in the area around Península Valdés, an odd-shaped protrusion on the Patagonia coast, between May and December. They come here to shelter in two natural bays, Golfo San José and Golfo Nuevo, where they calve and raise their young in relative safety away from pods of Orcas that hunt along the coastline.
There are so many whales, and they come so close to the shore, that you can see them from the cliffs overlooking the South Atlantic. Driving to the small village of Puerto Pirámides, the jumping off point for whale watching boat trips, we saw several whales close to shore. We could even see them from the air as we came in to land in Puerto Madryn. This area is a site of global significance for marine mammals – elephant seals, sea lions, orcas and Magellanic penguins to name a few – but it’s the Right Whales that steal the show.
The joke has been made before, but this bit of Argentina is home to both whales and Wales, or at least the decedents of 19th century Welsh settlers who were lured here in the belief they were going to a verdant paradise. It’s no surprise that there are so many sheep in this part of the country. We stopped briefly in Puerto Madryn to check out some of its Welsh heritage before driving over to Puerto Pirámides, the sleepy former salt port that is now the epicentre of Argentinian whale watching.
We’d booked a couple of nights in a self catering apartment, and were up early on our first morning to go out into Golfo Nuevo in the hope of encountering some whales. Morning is the best time to see the whales at their most active. Their behaviours alter during the day, but in the crisp morning air we saw them breaching, spyhopping and lobtailing. There seemed to be whales everywhere, on a couple of occasions they came close enough to our small boat to be worried we might all end up in the water.
A couple of hours later we were back on shore utterly exhilarated. The natural world has many wonders, but a leaping whale must rank as one of the most wondrous of all. We decided we’d book a return trip that evening to see the different behaviours the whales display at the end of the day. A few hours to spare, we drove up to a nearby estancia for lunch, which inevitably had to be lamb, before heading back to take the evening trip into the bay.
We sailed into the blue waters as the sun began to set, and we were treated not only to an amazing display of whale activity but vibrant red-orange skies. There’s no breaching at this time of day, but whale tails can be seen appearing out of the water in behaviours known as ‘fluking’ and ‘sailing’. We were in a small boat with only two other people and it felt like we had the entire ocean to ourselves. I could have stayed out on the water all night, but we had a bottle of malbec in the apartment that wasn’t going to drink itself, and this was an experience to celebrate.
It’s something of a miracle that we are able to witness any of this today, because this species of whale was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century. They gained the name “right” whale, because they were one of the favourite whales for hunting: they swam slowly, stayed close to shore, and floated when killed. The hunting of them began in the 17th century, but escalated sharply in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1830s alone, some 60,000 Right Whales were killed.
All-in-all, it’s believed that 150,000 Right Whales were ‘harvested’ before they were finally protected in 1935. Amazingly, by that time it was estimated that, on the entire planet, only around 300 Right Whales survived. It’s lucky they don’t hold a grudge. It has taken eighty years for their numbers to recover to a global population of around 10,000. If there was ever an advert for the insanity of humanity’s greed and ignorance, the near extinction of the Right Whale is it.