“There she blows! There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill!” ― Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Under a grey sky and just off the shingle beach between El Doradillo and Punta Flecha, enormous Southern Right Whales are basking in the shallows. We have arrived two hours before the high tide desperately hoping to spot some of these giants on the horizon but there they are – a tantalisingly close 30 metres from the shore. The wet puffing sounds of their blowholes and the sharp cracking noise of their fins slapping the water fill the air. To find ourselves standing on a beach listening to whales is giddying.
Right whales are the rarest of all large whales. They were named by whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to hunt as they are slow swimmers and, due to their thick blubber, they conveniently float when dead. Right whales came close to extinction following intense hunting in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and though internationally protected, they are still endangered today. Fortunately, the global population of the Southern Right Whale is recovering at a sound rate of 7% annually. The Atlantic waters surrounding Península Valdes provide the perfect mating and breeding grounds for the whales. In the distance we can see whales breaching and displaying their tails while the shallower bay acts as a nursery for females and their young calves. We’re incredibly lucky and manage to spot a rare and beautiful white Southern Right Whale calf.
Southern Right Whales grow to a maximum length of 17.5 metres and weight of 80 tonnes, mature females being slightly larger than males. They have truly enormous heads which can measure up to one-third of their total body length, and long arching mouths that begin above the eye. They have no dorsal fin. The most distinctive feature of Southern Right Whales though is their raised pale patches of skin, known as callosities, on the head, snout and lips. The surface of the callosities is very rough and jagged due to the attentions of whale lice (cyamids) which feed on and sculpt the thick skin mounds. Each whale has a unique pattern of callosities allowing animals to be individually identified.
We watch with interest as seagulls swoop on the surfacing whales, sometimes walking deftly along their backs, imagining that the gulls were feeding on the whale lice in some form of symbiotic relationship. Ah but no. The kelp gulls have learned to prey on the mother-calf pairs pecking into the skin to reach the nutrient rich blubber. The mothers expend energy trying to evade these sinister birds and consequently spend less time nursing. Their calves, therefore, become undernourished. Organised culls now regularly take place in order to protect the vulnerable whales.
Greedy for an even closer view of these leviathans, we join a whale watching tour. The boat is tiny. The wind is icy. The whales are spectacular!