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We had heard plenty about the whales in Puerto Madryn, but something about being so close to such an enormous makes you feel like you never knew what a 'whale' was in the first place. It felt like we had been transported back in time or to another world. Because whales are things that everyone knows about and sees on TV, they become lumped into that category of those animals you hear about but never (or rarely, as a splash of water a mile away from some big ocean liner) see. Even other exotic animals like lions, elephants, and sharks can be seen in zoos and aquariums. Seeing the whales close-up though gave me that hard-to-describe feeling not completely different from seeing Iguazu falls at night – the sights and sounds are incredible, but there's that element of unknown that can't be revealed.
Leon and I got off the 18+ hour bus ride in Puerto Madryn a little achy, but not too tired, as the 160' reclining seats were quite comfortable to sleep in. Despite the loser in front of me that stole my headphones while I was sleeping (and gave them back when I asked for them in the morning), and the absolutely revolting bus food (you thought airline food was bad...), the bus ride was actually enjoyable.
We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, which was: see the whales, dive with the seals, and chill with the penguins. We were able to do all of them more less (due to strong northerly winds, visibility was about 12 inches underwater, so we snorkeled instead of diving with the seals).
Seeing the Whales:
Southern Right Whale - so named because they were the 'right' whale to hunt because they were slow and floated when killed
We hopped on the early bus to Peninsula Valdez so that we could be one of the first boats out in the harbor. The whales come up to the bay to reproduce, as it is a protected environment from the open ocean. It was late in the season, so the calves were already huge and getting ready to leave with their moms. It didn't take long to find a mom-calf that were hanging out, so the captain of the boat killed the engine, and sure enough the whales came right up close. In the not-so-far distance it was easy to see huge whale flukes rise out of the water, as well as many whales doing that move where they rush straight up from underwater like they're trying to jump up out of the water, but are too fat so they only make it about half-way and come crashing down on their side. I guess the consensus is that it's some type of long-range communication.
The tour bus took us almost around the entire circumference of the peninsula, so we were able to see some seals, sea lions (I finally learned the difference!), and a few penguins. The peninsula itself was...not very exciting – it's considered a 'semi-desert', getting 300mm of rainfall a year.
Snorkeling with Seals:
Can't help but wonder what goes through these guys' heads... (note this pic was taken during the dolphin-watching. pics of us w/the seals will be up next week)
Despite the frustrating monopoly of dive-shops that banded together to keep prices way high, Leon and I gave in and paid the 450 pesos for the opportunity to snorkel with some seals. It was only an Israeli girl, Leon & me, and the guide, so we were looking forward to having plenty of seals to ourselves. Francisco, our guide, waited until we were already under way to mention that it was possible no seals would play with us, and 'ALSO GUYS (writing in caps because he always seemed to half speak/yell), IF THE MALES SHOW AGGRESSION I WILL TELL YOU TO GET OUT OF THE WATER' – nerves acting up a bit and a tad seasick, my expectations dropped and worries rose. However, my mood quickly changed when we pulled up and killed the engine, because we could see a dozen or so seals split off from the huge group on the beach and come head straight for us.
Seals are probably the most hilarious animal I've ever seen – they swim around with their huge adorable eyes looking right at you, then pop their head up and let out a surprisingly loud burp-gargle-scream-howl (don't really know how else to describe it) either right at you, back to the group on the beach, or just at nothing.
We hopped in the water and they were not reserved at all. They came right up in your face, nibbled on your hands or flippers in a similar way that dogs do (but seeing their 2+” canines was quite unsettling), and bumped up against you (one actually went underwater and held my knees together for a few seconds with its flippers which I found hilarious). They seemed to enjoy being tickled and scratched, but not held, for understandable reasons. Leon and I picked up a 27 exposure underwater camera and used all the shots during the swim – I really hope a few came out well. I will develop, scan and upload them later this week.
At one point a MASSIVE male seal came out to join us, and despite it being terrifying at first, it became clear it just wanted to play rather than tear us limb from limb (which it could have done very very easily).
Chilling with Penguins:
Penguins probably take a close 2nd to seals when it comes to hilarious animals. Punta Tombo, about 3 hours south of Puerto Madryn, is a large penguin breeding colony where half a million penguins come every year when it's warm (kind of like penguin spring break – but instead of getting drunk off of margaritas, they just eat tons of anchovies). Apparently the males come first and return to the same nest they made the previous year and make it all tidy and nice, then the females come a week later to either find the same male as before (if their baby penguins survived from the year before), or find a new male (if they didn't).
Nap-time in the sun for the happy couple
On the way to Punta Tombo, we stopped halfway to do a dolphin-watching tour. It was fun and we saw a good number of small white+black dolphins (kind of looked like mini killer whales), but it paled in comparison to the whale watching.
If you had asked me if I would support building a tourist facility in the penguin breeding grounds, and creating paths through it, I probably would have said no way, but I must admit they put a lot of effort into not intruding on the penguins. The breeding ground is absolutely massive (everywhere you look there are little holes in the ground, maybe a few square feet in size, that each house a couple penguins and their chicks. This place was unique in that while there were some fences keeping people confined to a large area, we were able to roam around freely with the penguins. However, we were warned to not to try to touch them, as their sharp hooked beak (that is strong enough to pierce fingernail) usually houses decaying fish flesh that is guaranteed to give you a horrible infection.
Our driver (it was a small group – just a middle aged couple, leon&me, and the driver) recently graduated from some sort of tourism school in Puerto Madryn and this was his first season running his own tours. He was young – maybe 25 – and said he worked 7 days a week, frequently from 6am to 2am. Lets just say it showed, as he was clearly very tired driving us back from Punta Tombo. When he mentioned something about the weather, I tried to continue the conversation for a while to keep him up.
In general, it's a cool little city. The beach is nice and things are calm. The two big things it's got going for it are tourism and a huge aluminum factory which together employ the city's 60k people. Leon and I took a couple bike rides – one to the EcoCentro, which had a lot of information about the flora and fauna of Peninsula Valdez, and one longer less pleasant (hot sun, gravel roads, strong winds against us, and an overwhelming makes-you-not-want-to-breath fish-stench from the nearby fishery) ride up north where we found a really nice bluff away from the fishery over the ocean that we had all to ourselves (not many people venture out of the city without guides, and this place was pretty remote). The restaurants, hostels, and people were all quite nice, and I would recommend it if you have some free time in the area. If only it didn't require such a long bus ride to get there.
Back in BA:
I've got some time to kill now. I leave tomorrow night to go to LA for a bit, and I will update on future plans (Up next: Peru!) when they become more clear. I hope everyone has been well.
Again – comments, questions and suggestions are encouraged!