PENÍNSULA VALDÉS, a sandy-beige, treeless hump of land connected to the mainland by a 35km 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 saltpans 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. How the recent discovery of oil and shale gas reserves in the vicinity of the reserve will affect this remains unclear at present.
At the end of the asphalt road, 105km from Puerto Madryn, lies the tiny settlement of Puerto Pirámides, named after the pointed cliff at the mouth of the bay. This is the place for whale-watching: between June and mid-December the nearby waters are temporarily home to the most famous of all the peninsula’s visitors, the southern right whale. Few experiences beat the thrill of watching these massive animals approaching your boat, breaching (leaping out of the water) or jutting their tails above the surface as they dive to feed. There are also good diving opportunities for humans, with some trips attracting the attention of sea lions and whales, though it’s officially illegal to dive with whales; locals refer euphemistically to “excursiones especiales”. You can walk to the sea-lion colony (Jan is the best time) at Punta Pirámides, 5km round the headland to the northwest.
The marine mammals of Península Valdés
The marine mammals of Península Valdés
Although diverse and significant populations of birds and terrestrial mammals exist on Península Valdés, it is the marine mammals here that are of particular interest.
Southern right whale
The southern right whale (Ballena franca austral) comes to the sheltered waters of the Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José to breed. Weighing up to fifty tonnes and measuring up to 18m in length, these gentle leviathans are filter-feeders, deriving nutrients from plankton. 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 within Argentine territorial waters. This 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. The dorsal fin on an adult male is the biggest in the animal kingdom, measuring 1.8m, 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. If you want to know more, contact Fundación Orca in Puerto Madryn (t0280 445 4723, wfundorca.org.ar).
Sea lions (Lobos marinos) were once so numerous on the peninsula that 20,000 would be culled annually for their skins and blubber – a figure that roughly equals the entire population found here today. 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 300kg adult male, ennobled by a fine yellowy-brown mane.
Península Valdés is the only continental breeding ground for the southern elephant seal (Elefante marino). 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 super-stud tyrants get greedy. One macho male at Caleta Valdés infamously amassed 131 consorts. 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, much smaller than the males, are pregnant for 11 months of the year, giving birth from about mid-September. Pups weigh 40kg at birth, but then balloon 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 1000m 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.