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Archive for Sunday, June 25, 2000

Acrobats of the deep

Southern Right Whales make quite a splash

June 25, 2000

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— Twenty yards from our catamaran, the tail of a Southern Right whale rises into the air, playfully twisting and turning before sliding back into the deep as if performing a ritual dance.

A chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" rises from a group of whale-watchers aboard the Moby Dick.

The tail of a Southern right Whale rises into the air off the
Valdes Peninsula, about 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires,
Argentina. Some 600 whales have gathered in protected waters of the
South Atlantic to bear their calves and nurse them to size.

The tail of a Southern right Whale rises into the air off the Valdes Peninsula, about 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some 600 whales have gathered in protected waters of the South Atlantic to bear their calves and nurse them to size.

Most of us have come thousands of miles to see one of Earth's largest and most astonishing sea creatures cavort off this remote and rocky coast. Here off the Valdes Peninsula, about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires, some 600 whales have gathered again this year in protected waters of the South Atlantic to bear their calves and nurse them to size.

Our catamaran cast off from the fishing village of Puerto Piramides one afternoon in search of the whales. Beneath the Moby Dick, the waters changed from green to a deep, inky blue as we glided away from the port, aptly named for the surrounding cliffsides, which evoke the grandeur of Egyptian pyramids.

The Valdes Peninsula, in southern Argentina's Chubut province, provides refuge to an abundance of fauna and marine life: fur seals, sea lions and all kinds of birds, even penguins.

A narrow strip of land jutting into the sea, the peninsula is sandwiched between the San Jose Gulf on the north and the Nuevo Golfo to the south.

Last year, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization placed this area on its list of World Heritage Sites, declaring this wildlife sanctuary one of the world's important natural habitats.

Tourist attraction

Tourists from around the world Americans, Europeans and Argentines among them arrive year-round, many drawn by the allure of the Right whales, a species nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s.

Lore has it that these whales got their names for being the "right" whale to hunt, gentle and willing to approach boats and hence easy prey. That same docility today makes the Southern Right Whale easily accessible to tourists.

Migratory by nature, the whales make their home off the Valdes Peninsula from May until December. Upon arriving in May, their calves are born over the ensuing two months. Adult females produce offspring on average about once every three years after a 12-month gestation period. They nurse their young for two years.

The males are first to leave with the approach of the Southern Hemisphere summer, returning to Antarctic waters. The females follow in mid-December, when the calves are strong enough to survive the voyage.

The males are first to leave with the approach of the Southern Hemisphere summer, returning to Antarctic waters. The females follow in mid-December, when the calves are strong enough to survive the voyage.

To the delight of the 70 tourists aboard our catamaran, a female whale and her calf approach, hovering just 12 feet (4 meters) to port. The mother is at least 35 feet (12 meters) long and her calf about 24 feet long (8 meters). Their dark gray skin glistens in the sun.

It is the calf that seems the most inquisitive, leading the way toward the Moby Dick. In a surprisingly swift maneuver for a 50-ton creature, the mother suddenly darts between the catamaran and her offspring, gently nudging the calf away.

At 14 meters in length, the Moby Dick is barely longer than the mother. But our captain, Mariano, advises tourists the craft is extremely stable at 7 meters (21 feet) wide and there is no reason for concern.

Close enough to touch

The whales are cetaceans, warm-blooded mammals that breathe through lungs and give birth live. The Southern Right Whale has no teeth and relies on its baleen, a series of flexible laminates that filter water to feed off diminutive crustaceans called krill.

Krill are found in abundance in waters off Antarctica where the whales spend most of the year feeding. While off the Valdes Peninsula, the whales subsist on the body fat stored up during the previous months.

Soon we spy another whale: a burst of spray in the telltale form of a "V" draws our attention. Many pull out cameras as Moby Dick draws close enough for an American tourist to point out the thickened yellowish calluses on the head typical identifying patterns.

Every whale has a unique pattern, much like fingerprints in humans. Scientists have even been able to conduct aerial surveys tracking the movement of individual animals by their markings.

Whale-watching, while closely regulated, has grown over the years. In the past, smaller boats made the expeditions with just a few people at a time. Now catamarans and larger vessels accommodate dozens of tourists on a single outing.

Some 100,000 tourists a year now make the trip.

The authorities control the hours and number of boat departures in order to safeguard the whales and the environment. But thanks to conservation policies, the whale population once threatened with extinction has grown.

A final sighting

As our catamaran heads for home, there is a commotion: A calf has glided beneath our vessel, swimming from starboard to port.

The catamaran, on a zigzag course for home intended to maximize whale sightings, slows to a crawl. In the distance, we watch as two whales leap from the water, their heads nearly touching as if performing in some aquatic circus.

Then we pick up speed for home, the engine's hum drowned out by the noise of waves slapping against the boat. Soon we see Puerto Piramides swing into view as the sun slants toward the horizon, bathing the sea in an almost magical afternoon light.

We are jarred from our reverie as the Moby Dick shudders from a giant splash: as if saying goodbye, a whale leaps into the air and falls back into the sea with tremendous force. One last look back yields an unforgettable site a whale's lone silhouette etched upon a golden sky.

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