Travel Consultant, Sean McBride, recently went on a trip to Peninsula Valdes in search of the southern right whale. Follow Sean’s journey along the coast of Argentina and find out if he saw these majestic whales.
Tourist season in Peninsula Valdes (Puerto Madryn) ultimately coincides with the migratory patterns of the southern right whale. Years ago, the mammal’s curious nature made them the “right” whale to hunt. By offering themselves to the marauding fleets, the unfortunate whales offered high rewards with minimal risk for those hoping to strike riches in the unforgiving southern oceans. Characteristics that once led to the near extinction of these gentle giants now contributes to their livelihood as the focus has shifted from exploitation to admiration. With the southern right whale population increasing by about 7% every year, now is the best time to see the 2000+ whales migrating to the waters of Golfo Nuevo.
My own journey to Puerto Madryn began in July. I decided to join a group of scuba divers that planned to dive in the whale-filled waters of Golfo Nuevo in August. Being somewhat of a whale enthusiast, the allure of sharing the ocean with a modern day aquatic dinosaur proved too perfect. After completing my open water diving course in Buenos Aires, I was ready for my journey to the frigid winter waters of Patagonia.
Getting to Peninsula Valdes
The starting point for any visit to Peninsula Valdes starts in the city of Puerto Madryn. The Trelew airport services Puerto Madryn and is a short 2-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Upon take off, I watched as the fertile greens of the Pampas gave way to the brown arid scrub of Patagonia. And as we neared Peninsula Valdes, I was shocked to see the size of the peninsula as it juts out into the Southern Atlantic. Surrounded by pristine waters and the promise of mega-fauna my squinting eyes scanned the waters with unrealistic optimism for the dark shadows that might indicate the presence of a southern right whale.
I waltzed through the small regional airport of Trelew with minimal fuss and traveled by ”Combi” Mini-bus to Puerto Madryn about 50 minutes north. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town of Puerto Madryn sits on the westernmost reaches of Golfo Nuevo with a beach that stretches north toward Peninsula Valdes. Very much aware of its assets, Puerto Madryn is heavily geared toward tourism with quality hotels in all categories and a variety of bars and restaurants that line the waterfront.
Wildlife in Peninsula Valdes
A mecca for wildlife with elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, dolphins and seabirds all migrating to the region at different times of the year one can explore a number of highlights no matter when they visit. For those visiting the area between late February and the end of April, you can observe orcas at the North Eastern end of Peninsula Valdes.
Whale Watching by Land vs. by Sea
Prior to arriving in Puerto Madryn, I had harbored concerns that catching sight of whales swimming within the enormity of the Golfo Nuevo might prove difficult. As soon as I arrived at the beach of Puerto Madryn, such fears were emphatically quashed. I saw as many as 10 whales at one point, all visible from the shoreline. I sat and enjoyed their acrobatic show of fluke slapping, breaching and fin sailing.
There are a number of whale watching tours to choose from, all of which leave from both Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes and range from 1 to 8 hours. Multiple sightings are nearly guaranteed, and whales often swim alongside ships for a few minutes. Undoubtedly the crowning jewel of the region’s whale watching fleet is the Yellow Submarine. An engineering masterstroke, the Yellow Submarine inverts the concept of a fish bowl by having a specially designed hull that extends downward into the water and allows passengers to observe whales through windows that run along the ship’s subaquatic sides. The upper deck allows passengers to observe whales by more traditional means, however down below is where one can enjoy a truly unique and much more complete whale watching experience.
A sophisticated and cultured predator, the orcas of the region perform a hunting technique that is unique to only this small corner of the world. From the beach, visitors can observe the orcas darting from the surf onto the beach in dramatic bursts to snatch seals from the shoreline. This incredible display of cultured predation is not for the squeamish as attacks can be quite bloody and is a far cry from the traditional perception of the orca as being some sort of cuddly sea panda. None the less, this is an excellent opportunity for nature lovers lucky enough to witness something truly unique in the natural world.
After observing the whales from the vessel and shore, I started my diving excursion. I completed 4-dives over two days and was fortunate enough to swim through the hull of a wreck where I saw several sea lions. Although I did not see a whale while I was diving, I still enjoyed the wildlife and pristine ocean.
Punto Tombo Penguin Colony
The Punta Tombo penguin colony is located south of Puerto Madryn. There are daily excursions to the colony allowing visitors to observe the Magellanic Penguins up close in their natural habitat. Whilst the physical attributes of the Magellanic penguin enable it to dart through the water with streamlined ease, their high center of gravity and tiny legs make walking on land adorably awkward. Watch the penguins waddle as they scurry across the stony shore amongst a cacophonous crowd of black and white. Tours are full-day with several more highlights along the way including a visit to a Paleontological Museum.
Punta Lomo Seal Colony
A 20-minute ride south crisscrossing past Chubut Province takes you to the Punta Lomo Seal Colony. There is a vantage point above the cliff that overlooks the seal-filled beach where visitors can see the region’s permanent seal colonies.