Our small raft rounded the corner into a bay of the Gulfo Nuevo in the Atlantic Ocean. Immediately we saw three small whale tails and the mother whale’s head behind them.
During our two-hour whale watching excursion off Peninsula Valdes, near Puerto Madryn and Puerto Piramides, Argentina, we floated in the ocean and watched as the Southern Right Whales (Ballena Franca Austral in Spanish) nursed, played, and swam under our boat.
Southern Right Whales average about 40 ft long and weigh 27 tons. There are only about 6,000 of them left in the world, 400 near Peninsula Valdes, because they were hunted to near extinction. Hunters favored them because they are slow and float on the water’s surface when killed.
Southern Right Whale Floating on Her Back (Possibly Nursing)
They also float when they’re nursing. We learned that of the three babies (ages 4-6 months) we saw, only one was this mother’s. The guides recognized a second as an orphan who has been nursing from other mothers in the area (although not all mothers will nurse an orphan). They didn’t know where the third baby came from. While this whale let them nurse off her on this particular day, it was unlikely she would continue to do so as each baby eats over 200 liters of milk a day.
Another interesting fact: Southern Right Whales have hair in many of the same places humans do, like eyebrows above their eyes.
Southern Right Whale Eye
Unfortunately, even with the ban on hunting, these whales are still not safe from predators. The seagull population has expanded rapidly and one seagull colony has started eating off live whales’ skin.
The Southern Right Whale has incredibly sensitive skin and the seagulls bring infections.
Scares Likely Caused by Seagulls
Despite this depressing fact, I couldn’t be anything but awestruck at these majestic creatures. They swam close to the boat and made magical whale noises that I had previously only heard on the Discovery Channel. (The tour operators stressed the importance of being quiet. Besides the whale sounds, cameras clicking away provided the soundtrack for our tour.)
Our whale watching tour started out spectacularly with the three baby tails and two hours and 600 photos later ended with the mother waving us goodbye.
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