19 Oct Backpacking, Welsh To…

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Kevin Bennett – WCA Intern

19/10/2016 – Backpacking, Welsh Towns and Friendly Whales

 

So after a few weeks of backpacking which took me from Buenos Aires to Paraguay and then to the amazingly spectacular Foz Du Iguazu in Brazil,  I was ready to head to Patagonia and resume working on The Net Effect project.

I landed in Trelew, which doesn’t sound very Argentinian, and that’s because it’s a town founded by Welsh settlers who set off on a boat called Mimosa from Liverpool in 1865 searching for a better life.  From Trelew airport I went directly to Puerto Madryn, the biggest city in Chubut province, where I stayed in a hostel for the night.

At 07:45 the next morning I was joining a group tour run by Tito Bottazzi, a responsible whale watching company and partner of the World Cetacean Alliance.  For today I was a tourist.  We left Puerto Madryn for Peninsular Valdes and drove north with the sea on our right side.  From my window I scanned the ocean and it wasn’t long before I saw a blow relatively close to the shore, from the distinctive V shape I knew it was my first Southern Right whale.  I was amazed to see one so soon and before long noticed more whales in the area.  I later learned that Golfo Nuevo had previously been declared by National Geographic as the best place in the world for whale watching from the shore!

Upon arriving in Puerto Piramides I walked into the Bottazzi office to the surprise of Emma, the other net effect intern who was doing her placement with Bottazzi too. We hadn’t seen each other for over two months since completing the training at the WCA headquarters in Brighton, England.  It was great to catch up and we soon we realised that we were going on the next trip together, me as a tourist and her as a net effect guide.  As a group of around fifty passengers we headed to the beach to board the boat, Mimosa III, the biggest of the Bottazzi fleet.

The way the boats are launched here is fascinating and it reminded me of the way they launch the boats in the tiny fishing village of Cadgwith, Cornwall.  The boat is on a trailer and is pushed into the water by a farm tractor until it floats.  The government started a project to build a pier to launch the boats from but due to the five meter difference between high and low tide and a gently sloping beach the pier would have had to be almost a kilometre long!  The residents decided that the effects on the local habitat and environment from building such a structure were too much and opted  to continue using tractors, whereby all of the tyre tracks from launching on the beach were simply wiped away with every rising tide.

Tito Bottazzi Boat - Copyright Kevin Bennett

The trip was absolutely amazing.  We were treated to numerous close encounters with mothers and their curios calves but it ended spectacularly with mating behaviour between a female and two males trying to prove themselves as worthy males.

After the trip I grabbed a few empanadas, my favourite South American snack, and the group continued our tour across the peninsular.

The peninsular is so much bigger than I expected and on the gravel roads it takes almost an hour and a half to reach Valdes Creek, 75km away.  However the journey is usually interrupted several times due to interesting wildlife encounters with Guanaco, choiqe, armadillos and Patagonian hare. Once you arrive at Caleta (creek) Valdes the first stop would be the small penguin colony of around 200 Magellan penguins, the beginning of October is mating season and most penguins seemed occupied with that.

A few kilometres south of the penguin colony is a viewpoint which overlooks the mouth of the creek.  The beaches inside the creek are littered with elephant seals, something that can attract orcas here this time of year.  The spit to the north of the mouth is covered with hundreds of sea lions, another reason for the orcas visits!  For me, a guy who has waited his whole life to see orcas, we left this place far too soon.  But I will be back!

The final stop of the tour was just a few kilometres further south.  A headland that  formed the southern barrier of the creek, Punta Cantor where there is an elephant seal colony full of giant 5 tonne males, females and new born pups.  With various view points and small treks along the coast; it is a great place to explore.  There is also a park ranger based here to make sure everyone behaves appropriately towards the wildlife and also signs about local species, tide times and excitingly for me, the latest sighting of orcas.

After an eventful day I was dropped off at the Bahia Ballenas (Whale Bay) hostel in Puerto Piramides, this would be my home for the next couple of months.  I quickly settled in and went to bed early as tomorrow, the Net Effect project would really begin.

My first trip was together with fellow intern Emma, she quickly showed me the ropes and what to expect from a typical trip.  There were a few things that were said in Spanish and it was part of our duty to explain this information to the passengers who could only speak English.  This included safety information about the launch and the procedure of which rows will sit, kneel and stand depending on which side of the boat the whale is on, ensuring everyone gets a good view and the boat remains balanced.

Whale Closeup - Copyright Kevin Bennett

The trips were absolutely amazing, far beyond my expectations.  The whales were so friendly and the captains knew exactly how to expertly approach the animals in a way that would not overly disturb them but allow the whale(s) to come closer to the boat if they wanted to, whilst occasionally rotating the boat to allow both sides a front row seat.

Many whales were curious, especially the calves. In Spanish the Right Whale is called Ballenas Franca meaning friendly whale and they were so friendly and curious, we were witnessing first hand one of the characteristics of these majestic creatures that almost led to their extinction after centuries of whaling.  Its so sad to imagine them approaching whaling ships in the same way I saw them approach a boat full of awestruck observers.

Basically, I had two days to learn the ropes as this weekend was a public holiday in Argentina and we were going to be very busy!  One thing that did impress me about the whale watching companies in Puerto Piramides is that they work as a community group and create their own rules to help protect the whales, their businesses and also ensure that the passengers have a quality experience.  Ordinarily each company can only run one ninety minute boat trip every two hours.

However during public holidays when thousands of tourists would descend on this tiny village, each company would be permitted to run a trip every hour so therefore staggering two trips simultaneously all day.

Other self-imposed rules that the whale watching companies followed included a minimum trip length, minimum distance from the shore and a maximum of two boats at any group of whales.  However for almost all of my time on-board I rarely encountered more than one boat on any particular whale(s), this was simply because there were so many whales in the gulf that boats didn’t need to crowd around the same ones.  They just move a few hundred meters to the next whale!  Bottazzi also offered a money back guarantee if no whales were seen on a trip until mid December, when the whales head to their feeding grounds in the south Atlantic/Antarctic.  That just goes to show how much of a special place this is within the whale watching world!

After a week or so in the village I had settled into the lifestyle but probably the hardest part was getting enough sleep.  Us Europeans weren’t used to the Argentinian way of socialising so late and meeting for dinner at around 10pm.  We soon realised that a nap after work was they key to feeling fresh in the morning!

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