Saturday, December 1, 2007

Whale-Watching in Wild Patagonia

The day after visiting the Penguin colony (see previous entry), we took a wildlife and whale-watching tour of the Penisula Valdés, which is on the Southern Atlantic coast. The Southern Right Whales migrate down to this peninsula for mating and breeding baby whales. Supposedly, this is one of the best whale-watching spots in the world, so naturally we were pretty excited about this. Even though we awoke to winds so strong that it sounded like the roof of our hotel was about to rip off, it was sunny, reasonably warm, and all of the guides kept telling us that we had perfect weather conditions for whale-watching.

Our bus picked us up at our hostel and then made the rounds of other hotels in Puerto Madryn to pick up other tourists. After a few minutes, an American woman who we had previously met on a bus in El Bolsón stepped onto our bus. We immediately recognized each other, and she took the seat behind us. She was in her late sixties and traveling by herself. We certainly enjoyed chatting with her on both occasions. It seems that it is a small world even when traveling in a foreign country.

Our first stop of the day was at Caleta Valdés to view a large colony of elephant seals. Hundreds of elephant seals come to this area of beach every year during mating season. We had to keep our distance, but there were hundreds of these large, blubbery creatures all over the beach. We watched some maneuver themselves in and out of the water, which is just as amusing to watch as penguins waddling all over the place. We were hoping to see a big fight between the male elephant seals defending their harems or lady seals, but most of seals seemed to be taking advantage of the long siesta time.

We drove for a while on the bus, and it seemed that there was wildlife at every turn, both somewhat standard and exotic in nature. We saw:

A zillion sheep
Guanacos (look like a cross between llamas and camels)
Baby Guanacos
Lots of Rhea (Argentine ostrich)
A group of about 10 baby rhea running in a line with their father in the middle
Mara (a cross between a giant rabbit with short ears and a deer)
Baby Mara
More Magellanic penguins.

Not too shabby, if I say so myself.

The highlight of the day was our whale-watching tour. In the afternoon, we took a boat out into the bay. Within a few minutes, we saw our first of many Southern Right Whales. Our first sighting was an adolescent whale by himself, supposedly playing with some algae. There was a naturalist on board our boat, and she informed us that it was quite unusual to see this playful behavior at this time of year. We then moved over to a different section of the bay. We could see that there was another boat also in this area, so we were getting excited about what we might see. Our boat company allowed all passengers to come up to the front of the boat on a rotational basis. It was our turn, so we headed up the the front. Within a matter of minutes, we saw a huge 15 meter whale come up out of the water. This particular whale also kept bringing its tail fin up out of the water, and in general put on quite the show! We definitely timed our turn at the front of the boat perfectly. It's so hard to adequately describe seeing these maginificent and enormous creature some up out of the water. I have never seen anything quite like it...incredible! There was also a seagull following this whale around, and the seagull kept landing on the whale's back like it was trying to start a game of tag. The whale didn't seem to be too interested in playing tag with a seagull, though. Definitely funny to watch! As if all of this wasn't spectacular enough, we then saw two baby whales swimming along next to their mothers. The babies seemed to be mimicking what the mother did. The mother would come up for air, and then the baby would rythmically come up right after her. Apparently, the mother whales spend a full year with their babies before separating. The naturalist told us that in this year, the mother and the baby form such a close bond and are absolutely inseparable. I certainly thought it would be cool to see any whales in the wild, but seeing the baby whales with their mothers was absolutely amazing!

We also saw tons of Giant Petrol birds in the water with the whales. They were absolutely enormous and somewhat bizarre looking. They would then take off from a complete standstill in the water, but would run their feet along the surface of the water to build up momentum. During this process, it seriously looked like they were running on water...kind of bizarre.


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