Since my last entry, I’ve hopped around Argentina twice – first, a four-day stay in Puerto Madryn – and then, now, Ushuaia which is in the region known as Tierra del Fuego and dubbed by some as the end of the world. Presumably, early explorers probably literally thought it was the end of the world. In reality, Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the planet and a stopping-off point for visitors to Antarctica. The town itself is quite touristy but I was pleased to see a very prominent and authentic local vibe too. This included a bit of street dancing, which as you’ve perhaps now gathered, I rather enjoy. In terms of landscape, Tierra del Fuego is rugged, dramatic and very beautiful.
Puerto Madryn was less striking in terms of landscape, being predominantly flat and quite spartan in terms of vegetation. The town itself was first settled by Welsh immigrants in 1886, though on the surface there are few signs of its colonial roots, aside from clues in street names like Avenida de Gales, or a local bar named Mr Jones.
One of the main tourist draws to the town is visiting the nearby wildlife reserve on Peninsula Valdés, host to Magellanic penguins, Orca whales, sea lions and most importantly, the Southern Right whale. I quickly became acquainted with a friendly Dutch traveller named Huub when I arrived at the hostel and he told me he’d rented a car with a Dutch couple also staying at the same hostel. I was invited to join them for a drive around the peninsula the following morning, thus saving several hundred Argentine pesos compared to signing up with a tour company.
Once inside the reserve we arrived at Puerto Pirámides, where we parked up to enquire about a boat trip to see the remaining whales in Golfo Nuevo. However, we were told that the coastguard had declared the port closed due to a strong southerly wind, though there was a chance that it would drop considerably by the afternoon; a sunset excursion was therefore not out of the question. Disappointed, but not defeated, we returned to the car to start our tour of the large peninsula (a drive around the peninsula typically takes seven hours; we opted just to do the highlights).
Our first pause along the dusty and bumpy trail was to take a closer look at a herd of Guanacos, a camelid creature closely related to the better-known Llama. I got out of the car and slowly approached these mysterious beasts, SLR camera in hand. Unfortunately, they were pretty timid and wouldn’t allow me to come up close. Adding to that, the driver of a passing tour bus stopped to tell my Dutch companions that it was forbidden to walk outside the boundary of the road. Back in the car we got, and onwards we drove until we got to our first ‘official’ viewpoint where a flock of rather small Magellanic penguins were stationed. We paused to watch them and take photos, before driving on to see large numbers of sea lions lying lazily on the beaches. I’m fascinated and delighted by their canine-like playful behaviour, and was sad not to be able to get closer to them, but for obvious reasons the rules of the reserve have to be respected. Our last major sighting on the drive was of a pod of orca whales, which we were very lucky to see. But as they were far away, and I had neither a good zoom lens nor binoculars (the latter have now been bought), I felt a little bit frustrated at not being able to get closer to the action. I’m very much a person stimulated by full sensory ‘immersion’ in an experience.
We got back to the port at quarter to three in the afternoon, to be greeted with the news that the port had indeed reopened. Huub and I excitedly signed up for the whale-watching excursion (the Dutch couple opting out), which was to leave straight away and last for an hour and a half. During the induction we were reminded that it’s the end of the season for whales in the bay, and that only a single adult remained with her four-month-old calf. There was a 50-50 chance of a sighting, and our expectations were being managed accordingly: these are wild animals living in their natural habitats, and nothing is ever guaranteed. Huub reassured himself that as long as we tried our best to see the whales, in the event of coming away having seen nothing he would not feel bad.
Our first sighting was not of whales, but of a pod of Dusky dolphins. One or two of them swam alongside our boat, jumping out of the water and then disappearing beneath again. Others, which were further away, performed acrobatics, something the species is known for. After a little while we said goodbye and then the tour co-ordinator received a call to say that the fabled southern right whale had been sighted by another boat!
We approached the whales cautiously and had to hold back for a while as only one tour boat (we were three) could approach at a time; this was understandably to avoid making the whales feel overwhelmed. At first, we saw the calf (la cria in Spanish) breach the surface of the water with its crustacean-encovered head. Then came its long humped back, and a final majestic flap of its wide tail, before it disappeared beneath the water. The calf performed its breaching ritual a few times in succession, and then her much larger mother began to join in alternately, too. It is hard to truly appreciate the scale of these animals as they only reveal part of their bodies at any one time, but an interesting statistic to note is that the calf will drink up to 400 litres of milk from its mother every day.
Finally, our boat came closer and we watched the same motions from close-up, which were a powerful sight to behold; the whales’ cry was fantastically evocative. I had my camera round my neck, but as the observation was to be so brief I elected to focus on simply observing the whales, rather than trying to take probably-mediocre photographs and missing out on the purity of the sighting. I believe I made the right choice.