PENÍNSULA VALDÉS, a sandy-beige, treeless hump of land connected to the mainland by a 35-kilometre isthmus, is one of the planet’s most significant marine reserves, winning deserved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. It was beautifully evoked by Gerald Durrell in The Whispering Land: “It was almost as if the peninsula and its narrow isthmus was a cul-de-sac into which all the wildlife of Chubut had drained and from which it could not escape.” No description, however, prepares you for the astonishing richness of the marine environment that surrounds it – most notably the southern right whales that migrate here each year to frolic in the waters off the village of Puerto Pirámides – nor the immense animal colonies that live at the feet of the peninsula’s steep, crumbly cliffs.
The first attempt to establish a permanent settlement here was made in 1779 by Juan de la Piedra, who constructed a fort on the shores of the Golfo San José. A small number of settlers tried to scrape a living by extracting salt, but the colony was abandoned in 1810 after attacks by the local Tehuelche; an extremely limited salt-extraction industry exists to this day in the salt pans at the bottom of Argentina’s second deepest depression, the Salina Grande, 42m below sea level, in the centre of the peninsula. However, it is nature tourism that’s the pot of gold now, with Punta Delgada, Punta Cantor and Punta Norte, along with Caleta Valdés bay, providing some of the best opportunities on the continent for viewing marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions.Read More
Visiting Península Valdés
Visiting Península Valdés
Many people see Península Valdés in a day tour from Puerto Madryn, following a fairly standard route that visits the lookout point for Isla de los Pájaros, Puerto Pirámides (where a whale trip costs from $60 extra) and Punta Cantor and Caleta Valdés and – depending on the operator – either Punta Norte or Punta Delgada. Be sure to find out exactly what sights you’re visiting and how long you’ll get in each place (most tours stay 1hr at each destination), whether the guide speaks English and the size of the group (some companies use large buses). Tours are long (10–12hr) so bring picnic provisions, though you can buy lunch in Puerto Pirámides.
If you want to visit the peninsula independently, note that the Mar y Valle bus service links Madryn with Puerto Pirámides. This gives you the choice of going on one or two whale-watching trips, if you want to return the same day, but it’s difficult to get from Pirámides to the rest of Península Valdés without your own wheels.
Undoubtedly the best way to see the peninsula is to rent a car from Trelew or Puerto Madryn, allowing you to decide how long you want to spend wildlife-watching, and to time your arrival at Punta Norte or Caleta Valdés for high tide, when there’s the best chance of seeing orcas; it also gives you the freedom to stay at an estancia, recommended for a better appreciation of what makes the peninsula so special. Do not attempt to rush, however, especially if this is your first experience of driving on unsurfaced roads – serious crashes and fatalities happen with alarming regularity on the peninsula, especially after rain. When renting, check what happens if you break down or have a minor accident, as rescue bills can be hefty.
The whale-watching season runs from mid-June to mid-December, but the best time to visit the peninsula is from September to November, when elephant seals are also active, the penguin colonies have returned to breed and, if you’re lucky, you stand a chance of seeing orcas cruising behind the spit at Caleta Valdés.
Marine mammals of Valdés
Marine mammals of Valdés
Although diverse and significant populations of birds and terrestrial mammals exist on Peninsúla Valdés, it is the marine mammals here that are of particular interest. Pride of place goes to the southern right whale (Ballena franca austral), which comes to the sheltered waters of the Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José to breed. Weighing up to 50 tonnes and measuring up to 18m in length (the females are larger than the males), these gentle leviathans are filter-feeders, deriving nutrients from the plankton they sift from the seas with their baleen plates. Once favoured targets for the world’s whalers – they were the “right” whales to harpoon, as they were slow, yielded copious quantities of oil and floated when killed – they have now been declared a National Natural Monument, and are protected from the moment they enter Argentine territorial waters. This foresight has enabled the present tourist industry to develop, reinforcing the economic value of keeping these creatures alive; their charming curiosity – a trait that once put them in danger – now makes them one of the most enjoyable cetaceans to view in the wild.
The killer whale, or orca, is not in fact a whale at all, but the largest member of the dolphin family – it displays the high levels of intelligence we associate with such creatures, if not their cuteness. This is amply demonstrated in their unique hunting behaviour at Caleta Valdés and Punta Norte, where orcas storm the shingle banks, beaching themselves in order to snap up their preferred prey: baby sea lions and young elephant seals. Male killer whales have been known to measure over nine metres, and weigh some eight tonnes, although the ones off Valdés do not reach these sizes; females are not quite as long and weigh considerably less. The dorsal fin on an adult male is the biggest in the animal kingdom, measuring 1.8m – the height of an average man – and its size and shape is one of the factors used to identify individual orcas, along with the shape of the saddle patch and colour variations; 23 have been tracked off Punta Norte. If you want to know more, contact Fundación Orca (t02965/454723, wwww.fundorca.org.ar), a Madryn-based scientific organization dedicated to the study of this creature.
Sea lions (Lobos marinos) were once so numerous on the peninsula that 20,000 would to be culled annually for their skins and blubber – a figure that equals the entire population found here today, even after almost thirty years of protection. They are the most widely distributed of the Patagonian marine mammals and their anthropomorphic antics make them a delight to watch. It’s easy to see the derivation of the name when you look at a 300-kilogram adult male, ennobled by a fine yellowy-brown mane.
As animals go, few come into the league of the southern elephant seal (Elefante marino), a creature so large that Noah made him swim. Península Valdés is their only continental breeding ground and, the only place you’re ever likely to see them in the all-too-evident flesh. Weighing some three tonnes and measuring four to five metres, bull elephant seals mean business. Though the average size of a harem for a dominant male ranges between ten and fifteen females, some superstud tyrants get greedy. One macho male at Caleta Valdés infamously amassed 131 consorts, fighting off love rivals in the process. October is the best month to see these noisy clashes of the titans, but be prepared for some gore, as tusk wounds are inevitable. Adult females, a fifth of the size of the vast males, are pregnant for eleven months of the year, giving birth from about mid-September. Pups weigh 40kg at birth, but then balloon on their mother’s rich milk to weigh 200kg after only three weeks. The elephant seal’s most remarkable attribute, however, is as the world’s champion deep-sea diving mammal. Depths of over a thousand metres are not uncommon, and it is reckoned that some of these animals have reached depths of 1500m, staying submerged for a (literally) breathtaking two hours.