What is it about whales that we find so fascinating? Is it that a living creature the size of a city bus can exist on a planet where we little humans dominate the land? Perhaps it’s because they’re fellow mammals from a habitat inaccessible to humans, nursing their young in the shallow waters near the surface where we can watch their slow hypnotic movements. Or it’s all of those things and more.
We crossed Argentina, heading even further south into Patagonia than we wanted to go during winter, to reach Puerto Madryn, a port city that is home to the Peninsula Valdez Wildlife Conservation Area on the Atlantic Ocean. It is famously home to Magellanic penguins, elephant seals, sea lions and whales. We were giddy at the prospect of seeing all of these amazing Antarctic animals in one place.
Puerto Madryn is packed with tour operators offering whale watching cruises, but why would you ever do that when boats can’t get within 50m of the gentle beasts, but they come within 20m of the shore along the extensive coastline in this area?
And it was just that way that we passed one of our most memorable days on a nearly empty beach, scanning the water for a breach of a fin, the slap of a whale tail, a giant head emerging from the surface to blow water out of its blowhole, or the grand prize, a whale shooting upright out of the water and then diving back down in a side belly flop with a percussion that can be heard for miles.
We hadn’t really planned to, but we spent our most special night camping on that beach – just us and the whales.
As the sun faded, the sky turned pale shades of pink and the water settled into a silvery field of mercury, highlighting the dozens of whales rolling around just offshore. They come here in the winter to nurse their young. Baby whales can’t yet float on their own, so they are brought here to the (relatively) warmer waters of Southeastern Argentina, away from most predators, where they can be looked after until they’re ready to return to the deep waters of Antarctica in summer.
The mothers bring their calves right up close to shore, slowly breaching for air, followed by their babies who hover just over their backs. These mums and babies slowly make their way up and down the shallows. It was incredible to see these enormous creatures so close, yet be entirely “safe” from them, realising just how much we live in entirely separate worlds.
We were lulled to sleep by the sound of air rushing through blowholes – a sound somewhere between a snorkel and a whistle. The occasional thump of a jumping whale or the slap of a tail punctuated the tinkling of the waves lapping against the rocky shore.
In the early morning, we were joined on the beach by some fishermen and some snorkelers, but neither stayed for long. The warm sunny weather had given way to clouds and a cold wind. No matter their reason for coming here, the whales held everyone’s fascination.
Fishermen held their long surf rods in one hand, while filming the whales’ activities on their phones with the other.
We’ve never felt more at peace than that night on that beach. It was a magical setting, the whales mesmerising.
We came back to this spot to camp one last night before leaving Puerto Madryn. That night, we made a fire at the base of the chalk cliffs to protect it from the wind, and grilled some fantastic steaks that made this Texas butcher’s daughter’s heart happy.
The Peninsula Valdez on the other hand, was totally unexpected, and not really in the best ways. As a national park, it was well run, exceptionally clean, and the Guardafauna (park rangers) were extraordinarily welcoming and helpful…but we were there in the wrong season.
We drove more than 300km around the barren peninsula down wide dusty roads, and hardly saw more than 5 or so other cars the entire day.
Scrubby flat grasslands stretched as far as one could see, providing little in the way of visual diversions. You’re meant to be able to see the wildlife at different geographical points around the peninsula. And at each point, a lovely guardafauna was stationed, who told us that the orcas would be there after midday, or the seals in another month, or the penguins in September. At point after point we were left disappointed after enjoying a spectacular view, but none of the Antarctic animals we had come to see.
Despite all the driving without the big payoff, it wasn’t a total bust. We saw one lone elephant seal, on a beach we weren’t allowed to access without an escort. We also saw two dead penguins on that beach, so we did technically see some penguins. And we arrived at bird island too early in the day to see the flamingos, but the sweet Guardafauna told us how to get to a fishing village where there was a flock that lived there permanently.
That was awesome.
And we saw dozens of wild Guanacos, kind of a cross between a llama and a deer (sort of), wild rheas (surely a cousin of emus and ostriches) just out in the open. So that was cool too.
While the weather in southern South America wasn’t brilliant in winter, we didn’t really have expectations for it to be. And we knew things wouldn’t be busy in the low season, but we didn’t expect all of Patagonia to be closed up tight, making it difficult to find places to stay, eat, or entertain ourselves.
But nowhere got to us nearly as much as knowing that we were in the right place at the wrong time than Peninsula Valdez – knowing that we were in the place where thousands of creatures, not seen in the rest of the world, came to gather – and it wasn’t when we were there.
We all left feeling slightly disappointed, so we returned to our whale beach for a final night of camping before leaving the coast. And the whales were once again spectacular, making all of the frustration of the previous couple of days completely worth it.
The whales always make it worth it.