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Puerto Madryn – Wildlife bonanza!

Posted by on October 21, 2010

This update is for the weekend from Thursday September 2nd to Monday the 6th.

When you can sit on your hostel balcony (ChePatagonia, I can recommend it – a quiet but well-situated hostel with great staff) and look out to sea and just count: “whale. whale. whale.”, you know you’re somewhere quite special.

First night a few of us at the hostel headed to Cantina El Nautico for seafood, being on the coast. It was fantastic having a mix of all sorts of seafood (still not totally sure what sometimes, my food Spanish doesn’t extend too well to seafood items).

The next day I explored the town a bit. It’s got an unusual history, being where the Welsh (?!) settled 150 or so years ago. I found the supermarket, and the pier, and spent a while taking fluke photos of whales a few hundred metres away.

Back at the hostel, a new person had arrived – Adrianne the American, not that you’d know it as she kept lapsing into Spanish instead of English, having been working/interning in Buenos Aires for the last while. She had just booked an afternoon tour to go see elephant seals, and suggested I join. Seemed like a good idea.

South-east of Puerto Madryn is Puenta Ninfas, where it turns out, elephant seals enjoy hanging out and mating and the general activities that seals do. It’s also not part of a national park, which means tour guides hype it as you can get as close as you want to get to 9m long, 4 ton elephant seals just before mating season…which as it turns out, in some Australian’s case, was pretty close, getting between one male and it’s mate, giving the male some cause for anger. Amusingly the guide didn’t seem to worried, he just pointed out to the other Aussie that his friend was in trouble. This is the same Aussie that enroute to the colony, the bus pulled over and he dove onto and caught an armadillo. They’re surprisingly fast!

On the way back Adrianne, Irma, a girl from Sweden and myself decided to get off early from the bus and walk the last few km back into town along the coast, as we’d be able to see where some of the first Welsh structures were, and there’s a big monument with a flag which would make some good sunset photos. We took a few shots and then a local decided it was a good place to take a nature break right next to us, so we took that as a sign to move along. Convinced by my tales of delicious seafood, we headed to the Cantina again for dinner, and I was relieved that even Adrianne struggled a bit with the Spanish seafood menu :)

The following morning we had separate tours, I was going on the ‘main’ tour which every second visitor does, around the Valdés Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Odds are good you can get fairly close to whales, and if you’re lucky you can see more wildlife on land.

I was very lucky.

It didn’t start well, with the tour company forgetting to pick me up, so they sent a separate vehicle and we chased the first vehicle, meeting them at a beach half-way to Puerto Pirámides where the whales are literally a stone’s-throw from shore. (Not that I’d condone throwing stones at them, these are of course whales and are therefore bigger than you). The story goes that the stones and the shallow water make it a convenient spot for the whales to swim in and scratch their backs or bellies or something, but for us it makes some great photo opportunities.

I join the rest of my tour there for 5 minutes – they’ve had 20, before we hop in the van and continue. I quickly establish that I’m the only English speaker on my tour, and indeed the guide says everything in Spanish, and then everyone turns to look at me as he repeats it in English just for me. I begin to sense this may be a long day.

Before long we arrive in Puerto Pirámides, the small coastal town where the whale watching boats leave from. We load up in our boat, and start off out of the bay. There is a Spanish announcer and an English translator, but she mostly hangs out by the front of the boat, which holds about 30 people. I’m happy at the back, where I’ve got a good spot balancing on the edge of the starboard side, clinging to a pole, as we come up towards our first whales.

The Southern right whales are in this area from June to mid-December, and during September there are a lot of mother and calf pairs. We see many flukes in the distance, and the skilled driver allows the boat to drift towards some with the engine off. This all goes well and we get several pics, until one of the mothers in a pair gets angry/curious/playful and decides on a closer inspection. Three times she collides with the boat, tipping it on a huge angle, with several people tumbling across the deck and some screaming, while I clung to my pole grinning, I thought it was fantastic :) I mean, worst case we most likely end up in the water for a bit – we’re not exactly whale food, and the region is shark-free. She eventually moves away and we check out some other groups.

One of the more unusual behaviours is the arching of the whales’ backs when they surface, showing just their heads and tails. It turns out this is a response to an unfortunate development – over the last 12 years, seagulls have learned that they can land on the whales and, well, get a free feed, pecking at the whales’ blubber itself! Indeed, there are several seagulls flying about, and you soon learn you can use them as guides for when the next whale is going to show itself.

Towards the end, at one point the skipper announces that we really need to get back, but he was too worried about starting the engine – we had six or seven fully grown whales right up close by the boat. It ws amazing to see, as they circled and surfaced and cruised around, close but careful enough to avoid the craft itself.

Back on land we had 30 minutes to get some lunch, before we headed off to explore more of the peninsula. Aside from a museum with a whale skeleton and lots of info about the area, we stop at a couple more places for some short walks, including a sea lion and elephant seal colony. In all, during the day we saw probably 40 or so whales at a reasonable range (I won’t even count the distant fluke tails we saw), sea lions, elephant seals, a penguin, a gray fox, three armadillos, several guanacos and maras, and some rheas. We even saw one or two day old sea lion pups! We stopped at the beach again on the way back, and there were a couple of big whales close in to shore again, so shallow I could quite easily have swum out to meet them.

Back in town and the three of us met up again, as well as a Swiss girl from Irma’s hostel, and decided that given the location, the price and the taste, we would do seafood again. The cantina was seriously fantastic eating for amazing prices. Adrianne and Irma were ecstatic about their tour – they’d been swimming with sea lions, and had some amazing video and pics of them holding and playing with the sea lions.

The following day we were up before sunrise to go get some photos on the beach of sunrise with whales surfacing. Adrianne did the regular tour, and I gave myself a chill day, cruising around more of the town, and spending a few hours at the beach reading a book in the sun, glancing up every so often to see the whales. At one point there was a crowd on the pier, so I went down to get a closer look, to see there was a sea lion playing around under the pier. The Australians on the first day had shown us photos of a whale swimming under the pier!

Adrianne and I were both on the same bus back to Buenos Aires. I was in Ejecutivo again, although not without trying for Cama Suite which she was in – she was offered champagne after dinner!

Early afternoon on the Monday and we pulled in to Retiro Bus station, and I headed back to the hostel to see what had happened while I was away.

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One Response to Puerto Madryn – Wildlife bonanza!

  1. ElizMo

    Sounds fantastic!

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