Roving Reporter Bethan John visits La Esperanza Wildlife Refuge in Patagonian Argentina and experiences one of the best wild encounters on Earth.
Sitting on the warm pebbles of a vast beach, with the scrub desert of Patagonia spreading out behind me, there’s not another person to be seen from one horizon to the next. Alone, I watch as a Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) catapults its 30-ton body above the waves.
The whale is so close to the shore that, without binoculars, I can clearly see the rough white callosities that spread across its face, in stark contrast to its sleek oil black body. These thick, hard pieces of skin form a unique pattern on each whale, like fingerprints in humans.
Three times he thrusts half his body skywards, creating an explosion of water and making my heart race. Then, silence. I wait with anticipation, longing for another performance. But with calm monotony, the waves crash on the shore and it’s as though he was never there. The 15-metre beast has vanished.
I’m left to wonder if it really is a ‘he’ and how can you tell? For a week now I’ve been in La Esperanza refuge, protected using funds raised by World Land Trust and now owned by WLT’s programme partner, Fundación Patagonia Natural. Every day I’ve seen whales in pairs; they’re females teaching their calves to swim, in the relative safety of the shallows. But this is the first time I’ve seen one alone and putting on such a show – is this a sign of male behaviour? One thing’s for sure, male or female, it’s September near the Península Valdés of Argentina and this Southern Right Whale is here to breed.
I scour the ocean for another glimpse of my whale, always greedy for more. A petrel glides low along the water’s surface, with long unwavering wings, like an RAF bomber homing in on its target. A cormorant stands as a statue among the rock pools, bent wings outstretched, drying in the heat of the afternoon sun.
All is still, apart from the constant crashing of the waves, and I’ve almost given up on seeing him again. Suddenly, a flipper emerges from the water and sways back and forth beating the water; it’s the whales’ characteristic display. Brimming with happiness, I wave back.
Threats to Patagonia’s whales
Southern Right Whales were hunted to near-extinction by commercial whaling for more than 300 years, but today the greatest threat to the whales and other marine wildlife in the region is development.
Península Valdés is the world’s major breeding ground for the whales but offshore oil is having a major impact on this coast. Worldwide, collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear are the leading causes of human-induced mortality of Southern Right Whales, but an unseen threat is the chemical pollutant that accumulates in the blubber of whales with unquantified damage.
A more unusual threat to the whales in Argentina are Kelp Gulls (Larus dominicanus); they have been observed feeding on whale skin and blubber, with the Right Whales responding negatively to these attacks and suffering lesions from the harassment. But there is limited data available to evaluate whether these threats are currently affecting Right Whale recovery.
Fundación Patagonia Natural carries out vital monitoring and research into the Southern Right Whales, along with the other wildlife that finds a home in La Esperanza refuge, to better understand these threats and implement conservation action for their protection into the future.
Estancia La Esperanza means Ranch of Hope and, as I watch my whale wave to me, I can’t think of a more fitting name.