Do Whales Snore? - Península Valdés
We didn’t start out on this long drive just to end it in BA. We are going to Ushuaia, to the end of the world, and it’s time to make some progress. We ate and drank our way through much of the winter in this area, so its seriously time to move on. The weather should be getting warmer down south, and hopefully has spring has sprung!
We left BA on a Sunday and had a nice, leisurely drive out of the city. We've discovered its always best to arrive or leave these huge cities on a Sunday. We were headed to the Peninsula Valdés to catch the migrating Southern Right Whales. We had been emailing back and forth with our overlanding friends, Janice and Gregor, who are driving here from Santiago and we had made a plan to meet up to see the whales together. On the map it doesn’t look that far, but its about 800 miles and there really isn’t much on the way down.
Except for busy Mar del Plata, there are few beach towns, and in the winter (and through much of Spring apparently) they are essentially closed down. We drove three long days to meet up with J&G in Las Grutas - another beach ‘ghost’ town.
We overnighted in Monte Hermosa on the beach since the campgrounds in town were closed. We hadn't wild camped for months and months so this wasn't a bad alternative.
Gregor had to work and we didn’t mind the break, so we got some work done on the truck, BBQ’d on an open fire (John's favorite way to cook now!), walked on the beach where thousands of wild parrots lived (a fabulous surprise!), and basically hung out for three days. It was great to see our travel buddies again and slowly transition back into rig life.
We enjoyed the ghost town's amenities...
We went for a walk and ended up down by the beach. Thousands of wild parrots live in holes in these cliffs. Thanks for the photos, Gregor - next time we know to bring a camera to go buy bread!
In my quest to see as much wildlife as possible on this trip, we set off for the Península Valdés. This area is a Unesco World Heritage site, and an important breeding ground for the endangered Southern Right Whale. The warmer, more enclosed waters of the Golfo Nuevo and the Golfo San Jose brings hundreds of mama whales and their calves into these small bodies of water. They feed on krill, which brings them incredibly close to shore - making them much easier to view. This is a rare phenomenon but one that isn’t likely to last. The whales are dying in unprecedented numbers lately, and have fewer offspring because of diminished krill populations around the world - a consequence of a warming climate.
We headed for the town of Puerto Pirámides, a two-street town with a population of about 500 people. Whale watching tours seem to be the town's only reason for being. It was rainy and cold, with a howling wind whipping up off the water late in the afternoon when we arrived. We had booked a kayaking trip to see the whales the next morning. Things were not looking good with the weather. We had planned to camp in the town’s municipal campground, but when we drove up to a locked gate late, we realized we needed a Plan B. The town’s only gas station had a few trees for wind protection, so after filling up our tanks we asked if we could camp there for the night. They said no problem and so there we were, home sweet home. After a rolly polly night we woke up to sunshine, no clouds, and perfect paddling weather. Things were looking up!
As soon as we set out on the water, we saw our first mother and calf not even 100 feet away. We paddled with them for about a hour, slowly following behind, listening to them breath and watching them feed. Throughout the day we paddled with the whales; I think we saw 6 or 7 pairs, all slow moving and super close. At one point an adolescent swam around us and seemed to enjoy cutting us off and then surfacing behind us again. It was a beautiful way to experience their habitat.
The whales were really tough to photograph even though we spent so much time with them. Our kayaking guide told us the proliferation of “attacks” by kelp gulls on the whales is a cause for concern and may be why they don’t stay on the surface for very long anymore. The first attacks were recorded 1996. Usually working alone, a gull lands on the back of a whale lying at the surface and, using its beak, tears off as much skin and blubber as it can to eat, before the whale submerges. To avoid being attacked adult whales “spy-hop”, showing only their head at the surface, to breath. They moved so quickly we never got a great shot, yet they were so comfortable around us.
The top jaw, lower lips, chin and“eyebrows “ have areas of thickened skin or “callosities” that are covered soon after birth by a thin layer of pale colored cyamid whale lice that feed on the whale’s skin.
After getting off the water around 4:00 pm, we wanted a shower but apparently the town suffers from constant water shortages so our options were pretty slim. After a bit of searching we finally landed on a hostel that agreed to a shower outside the water curfew of 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. We paid for a bed ($13) so we could take a quick cold shower, then left after telling them we wouldn’t be back for the night. It was a little awkward. After a few beers and some dinner, we headed out to find some real camping. I had high hopes of camping with whales right offshore. The camping App. we use, iOverlander, had an entry for a camp spot out on some cliffs about 20 km north of town. It said it has “million dollar views and no noise except of the snoring whales”. Ok, that was our spot! We drove out on dirt roads through high scrub and thick bushes to a clearing right on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It was one of our best wild camp spots yet, and we were lucky to be the only ones there.
We set up camp, opened a bottle of wine, and wandered down close to the water’s edge to enjoy the sunset. Then as we were looking out, not 10 feet from where we were standing, a whale’s huge head surfaced. It pushed out a spout of water with a breath and made a long moan. It took me so by surprise, I grabbed Gregor’s arm and gave a little whisper/shriek. In the dim light we walked along the shore beside her until she submerged and was gone. It’s kind of rare when something takes your breath away like that.
Now, I’m not sure if whales snore, but the next morning when I woke up I opened the camper window facing out to the water and lay there for about about 15 minutes when I heard it - that long moan again. Was that a snore? John was already out by the water with his camera, so I scampered out of the camper to the water’s edge. The whale was just floating there…maybe sleeping? She stayed around for a while and then slowly moved on. We spent the morning sipping our coffee with our binoculars, watching the whales feed and out in the distance, breach high into the air.
After breakfast we took a walk along the coastal cliffs, and in the afternoon we ventured out for a drive around the northern part of peninsula. It rained out there for most of the day. We has our first close encounter with penguins at a small colony off the southeast side. It was pouring down rain and we stayed only a few minutes. The penguins looked as miserable as we felt but it was still exciting - our first penquins! We then drove to a remote sea lion colony and had a delicious lunch in a tiny sheep ranch restaurant in Fago Punta Delgada.
These "rocks" are boulders made of compacted shells. The whole cliffside was constructed of shells.
sea lions...laying about
Our first penguin encounter of the trip. Finally! Thoroughly miserable weather.
They all looked miserable too.
Late in the afternoon, we made our way back to our same camp spot to sleep with the whales. There is no better way to experience these giant creatures than on their own terms - where we could also be on ours. No other way to experience their sound other than to camp within ear shot of their “noise”.
Being able to hang out with them like that, camping right on the water only a few feet from them was really special…and so peaceful.
Next up…MORE Penguins.