LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 38
Pags. 44 - 51
By: Julia Caprara
Photos: Federico Quintana
A WHALE OF DAY
Puerto Piramides is a village of lovv houses that spreads around the bay overlooking the Golfo Nuevo. It has less than 150 inhabitants, all working in tourism. It is one of those places left in the world where the animal population exceeds the human population.
The Ameghino Isthmus connects the Valdes Peninsula with the mainland. It measures 7 kilometres across its narrowest section, from where the two gulfs are sighted, the Nuevo southwards and the San Jose in the north. There is in an Interpretation Centre offering graphic material, a display of fossils and information.
The best place to be when the whales arrive is in Puerto Piramides. From here, the authorised operators sail out to sight these Cetacea that arrive in May and stay until mid-December. The beaches are crowned by cliffs that hold millions of years of fossilised marine Iife.
The village first throve on sheep-breeding and later on, two salt pits were tapped, salt was transported by a narrow-gauge train to the old dock. Nowadays it survives thanks to the whales. Guillermo Sar Olazabal, descendant of Felix Olazabal, pioneer and landowner who arrived in 1897, was our expert guide of the Peninsula.
Whales in sight. Pinino makes a living by taking tourists whale-watching on his boat. Federico and I joined him with the illusion of watching a master sea-performance. A giant petrel approached while
Pinino briefed us on the clock arms method used to localise whales with precision. Instead of shouting: "There!", and not knowing where " there" is, he would say "At nine o'clock!", "At Eleven!" When this happened, Pinino would turn the engine off and we were suddenly wrapped by silence.
We would all look in the sought direction. A first whale appeared, shortly followed by others and others. The whales romped carelessly and as curious onlookers, we looked. Two males, sometimes more, would pursue a female whale until they reached her. Loving, in the animal kingdom is multiplying. Belly against belly, the male below the female. When the she-whale says no, she simply turns lazily on her back.
Weird colossal creatures -15 metres long, males measure one metre less- breathing out steamed water sprays, they pass under the boat, in a perfect exhibition of skill. " What if we turn over?" Not to worry, they are harmless. Very tame and friendly, they manyatimes delight the audience with a show of spectacular breeches. They rise vertically out of the water, and pound back with a clamour that can be heard several kilometres away.
For a long while, they keep their tail erect outside of
the water as a triumphant metaphor until their total immersion.
The southern right whale has been declared Natural Monument. It is
estimated that 20 per cent of the world population reach the coasts
of Chubut. Gabriela Moreno Raiti, a ranger at the Ameghimo Isthmus,
assures that very Iittle is yet known about these creatures. They
approach Valdes attracted perhaps by the calmness and temperature
of its waters.
It is believed that they move to the subantarctic region
attracted by the large amounts of krill and plankton, their only nourishment.
When they become of need of warmer seas, they appear in South Africa,
Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific Islands. Another mystery are
the callousness that they show on their heads, brows and jaws."Why
are they called right whales.' Because it was believed that they were
rightly huntable", Gabriela tells us.
They swim very slowly and they
float when dead; allowing the hunters to work on the body before loading
it on board". Overflying the bay is a thrilling experience. We boarded
a four-seat 1947 Stynson upholstered in bright red and skirted the
coast at the minimum allowed altitude varying between 150 and 200
metres, though ideal for spotting the whales from the air.
The Peninsula's Points. Valdes covers 3,625 square kilometres and its beaches teem with sea-lions, penguins, a variety of birds, rich fauna that yearly visit this southern haven. The whole Peninsula is a Natural Reserve. The countryside is a semi-arid steppe inhabited by choiques (South American reah), maras (the Patagonian hare), guanacos, grey foxes and flamingos, and covered by brush vegetation.
In Punta Norte lives Roberto Bubbas, a park ranger and killer-whale rescarcher, questioned for his technique of calling them with a harmonica. He has studied 20 specimens that frequent the gulf and his system never fails: he stands by the shore and plays his harmonica as the enigmatic killer-whales swim towards the coast beguiled by the music. This mighty Cetacea do have teeth.
They arrive in March-April to feed on sea-Iion and elephant-seal babies. They approach the shore cautiously, scuttling the waves and catch them unaware. Killer-whales give birth once every seven years and only four times in their lifetime.
The road continues southwards to Caleta Valdes and the Punta Delgada cliffs, Iast preserve of elephant-seals. The males undergo rough fights in order to establish their territories. The females arrive pregnant and give birth, ten days later they are in heat once again and carelessly abandon their cubs, departing until next season. The elephantseals submerge 1,000 metres to feed themselves and eat until they have their fill. They lounge lazily on the beach, saving their energies for future efforts and shed their skin during their stay.
More than 400 sea-lions concentrate in Punta Loma. They live here year-round and migrate briefly within the Golfo Nuevo and the Peninsula. The males are much larger than the females and carry a lush mane, they are also fierce fighters; maintaining a harem of ten females is a tough assignment.