Face to face with giants of the sea

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With enthusiasm, we left our baggage and headed straight to the ocean to the see if we had any luck. It was there, from the city shoreline and besieged by wind, the cold and hunger, that we had our first encounter with the whales. First, a blow in the form of a “V” on the horizon, then another one a little closer, and then a pair of tails submerging a mere 300 meters from the shore. It was breathtaking. We began to see in person all the fabulous things we’d heard about this place.

We’d dreamed for years of this place that we had only seen in photos and, at last, we had arrived. It had been a long journey from Chile, crossing the Argentinean pampa on a bus until arriving in Puerto Madryn, which would be our base of operations.

Even though you can sight a few whales from the city, you have to go to Nuevo Gulf on Valdes Peninsula to board a boat in order to get a closer encounter with these giants. The tour begins with stories of sheep ranches, refineries and a bit of drowsiness given the early hour at which the day begins.

At first glance, the peninsula isn’t particularly attractive. It is mostly arid and desolate, with merely small shrubs confronting the strong winds. But this first impression is not right. Upon entering the Valdes Peninsula Nature Reserve, one sees a place full of life with hundreds of guanacos, rheas, maras (large Patagonian rodents) and armadillos. A fauna complemented on the shores by penguins and giant colonies of sea lions and elephant seals. It is easy to understand why this is a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Puerto Pirámide, a small town of 430 people dedicated to tourism, is the only populated place inside the reserve. All embarkations leave from there to view the Southern Right whale, which from July to December each year is the undisputed queen of the place and the prime reason why we waited along with dozens of other tourists to head out to deep sea.

Unfortunately, we missed the first outing and we’re scared the wind will kick up and prohibit the boat tours, something that happens all too often. While we wait, we entertain ourselves looking out for whales on the horizon; an activity which becomes frustrating. We want to see them from a few meters as we’d been promised!

Out to Deep Sea

Slowly the boats begin to return and big tractors help to tug them from the sea. The passengers arrive notably cold, but they are happy and shout amongst themselves about having seen one, two, many whales, about how they didn’t get to photograph a jump, how marvelous their tails are and how cute their young are. We get excited and after a few instructions, life jackets, and a few minutes of waiting, we board a small boat. The tractor tugs us out to sea and we begin our journey.

Expectantly, we look for any movement among the waves. The minutes go by, but nothing, just the immense ocean. “There they are!” announces the captain, breaking the monotony. “See those streams of water?” We all get excited and prepare our cameras, impatiently waiting: but nothing. The captain explains that whales submerge and can appear anywhere. He stops the motor. It is they who shall come closer by sheer curiosity. We observe vigilantly. Not a sign, until a strong puff draws out some nervous laughter as we all turn to look astern. “There!” One, two, then three Southern Right whales, way bigger than our boat. They’re not dangerous but they are excessively curious and our feeling so tiny in comparison to the enormous bodies makes anyone nervous, especially when they pass under the boat.

 

 

One of them sticks its head out to observe us and snorts very strongly. The other two do the same and then dive, showing their enormous tails. Their movements are very slow, harmonious and extremely photogenic.

But to be honest, within beauty standards, the Southern Right whale isn’t exactly pretty, with its exaggerated accumulation of fat and calluses on its head, but its immense power makes it into a wonder capable of silencing anyone. Who would not be impressed looking up close at a creature of 17 meters in length and 45 tons of weight leaping itself through the air in a single bound? If we add to that its history of survival in the time of the whaling industry (they were almost brought to extinction), its curiosity, and its delicate movements, this is definitely an animal worthy of admiration and perfect for observing and photographing.

Sometimes they breathe so close to us we can smell the krill and plankton of their breath and they wet our cameras. They’ll disappear for a few moments but they come back quickly, curious in their encounter with this metal animal that floats in their waters, where they come to reproduce every year.

Two of them begin floating with their heads below the water, leaving a large part of their bodies exposed, in an absolutely vertical position. They’re so close we could touch them, but the captain says they’re extremely sensitive to touch and could flip our boat. Bad idea!

There’s an air of awe and respect. The boat’s motor is off, we’re in profound silence and the sea is at calm. Nothing interrupts the scene save for a few cameras with enough space on their memory cards.

They stay in this position for 15 minutes, until they submerge. We wait a while but they don’t appear anywhere. “Alright guys, we should head back,” says the captain, breaking the silence. “That was a spectacular send-off, eh?” Immediately, we begin with whistles, laughter, hugs, commentary and even applause.

We are euphoric even after reaching the shore. Later we see a couple in a heated argument with their guide, demanding their money back because they didn’t see any whales in their expedition. We look at each other and realize we just saw something unique because here there are no schedules, no fences and no domesticated animals. This is authentic wildlife and just every once in a while, these giants decide to show themselves for a bit and share moments with our own species.

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