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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Spectacular wildlife sightings in Argentina's peninsula Valdés

Traveling along Argentina's wild Atlantic coast
Phenomenal orca sightings on the beaches of Valdés
Whale, whales, Valdés - the southern right whale in our backyard
Nandu or Landcruiser - who is faster?

The peninsula Valdés has been on our bucket list for a long time. We've seen countless documentaries about the marine mammals that roam the beaches and shores. And Micha is really keen on getting whales in front of his camera lens. The travel time seems perfect. Every year from June to December you can find the southern right whales, which can weigh up to 80 tons. Orcas are also in the area, hunting for elephant seals or sea lions. And Magellanic penguins are breeding at this time. The best time of year to see all the marine mammals at once. In theory, of course. It takes a lot of luck and patience to actually spot whales and orcas. At high tide they seem to stay very close to the shore. Therefore, we orientate ourselves on the tide calendar, which we get in the visitor center. The peninsula Valdés has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 and is under nature protection, regionally managed by the Argentine province of Chubut. The 3,625 km² area is mostly privately owned, many sheep farms and some salines are located on the peninsula. There are few points that you can drive to, such as Punta Norte, to see elephant seals and orcas. Everything here is strictly regulated and controlled by the park rangers. It is only allowed to move on the boardwalks, access to the beach is strictly forbidden. All ranger stations on the island are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Beyond these times, access is prohibited and wild camping is not permitted in Valdés. There is an official campsite in Puerto Piramides, which means you either have to stay overnight there or leave the peninsula in the evening. Unfortunately the campsite is closed for low season in October, meaning there is no water, no toilets, showers etc. Just plenty of space. And every day the drive to the respective ranger stations remains. Due to the size of the island, this is usually around 80 km – one way! And on so-called ripio, a kind of bumpy dirt road. Our car and ourselves are well shaken and covered in dust. There is actually no way to turn off left or right, or even to stay overnight. As our friend Heribert once said: "The great freedom of Argentina ends at the fences along the road". Now we know what he meant.

We are a little disappointed from Punta Norte. We discover a colony of elephant seals on the beach. However, the animals are not very active. Most of the time they lie around lazily, now and then they shovel some sand away from under their stomachs when it gets too hot. We don't see orcas. No surprise, as we learn later. Those are only on this stretch of coast from February to May to hunt young and inexperienced sea lion pups.

Punta Norte Peninsula Valdes Argentinien Orcas Seelöwen Highlights Wale Whalewatching Puerto Madryn
Male elephant seals are certainly no easy prey for an orca

We make our first whale sighting in Puerto Piramides. Sadly dead on the beach, while taking a walk. Experts suspect that seaweed-induced increased levels of toxins have killed some whales (also known as "red tides"). But already the next day, at Punta Piramides, we get to see the first living specimens in the water. Quite close to the coast. It's always pretty easy to guess where they are, as numerous whale watching tours depart from the bay and there is usually at least one whale to be seen near slowly moving boats. What huge creatures! They can grow up to 17 meters long. Unfortunately, drones are only allowed in the nature reserve with a special license, which we do not have. Therefore, we only take pictures from the land.

Toter Wal in Puerto Piramides Red Tides giftige Algen
Dead whale in Puerto Piramides

Puerto Piramides Peninsula Valdes Whale Watching Argentina Valdes Halbinsel Highlights Must see mmq Photography michael Marquardt
Our first whale alive in Puerto Piramides

We have seen the use of drones in various nature documentaries and for research purposes. It is assumed that whales react much less to noises from the air than, for example, to ship propellers. Makes sense, after all the water is their habitat.

Along our drives across the peninsula we also get to see some of the "continental" fauna. Countless guanacos, a type of wild llama native to South America, roam the open grasslands. You wouldn't even guess that they belong to the family of the camel. With its woolly, fluffy coat, it bears a lot more resemblance to an alpaca. Not always easy to get them in front of the lens. They are quite jumpy. But not an issue for a proficient photographer.

Guanako Puerto Piramides Peninsula Valdes Whale Watching Argentina Valdes Halbinsel Highlights Must see mmq Photography michael Marquardt
Guanaco at sunrise

It is a lot more difficult to get a nandu in front of the lens. The ratite is extremely fast and very shy. We stop countless times when we spot them on the side of the road, but they always escape. Finally we change our technique and shot it while driving out of the car. Of course, this requires perfect coordination between photographer and driver. And I can confirm, they easily run up to 40 km/h :-)

Nandu Puerto Piramides Peninsula Valdes Whale Watching Argentina Valdes Halbinsel Highlights Must see mmq Photography michael Marquardt
Nandu at record-breaking speed

The next day we head for Caleta Valdés, the easternmost rangers station on the peninsula. It is said that there are chances of orcas sightings even at this time of year. We are excited. Of course we are on site at high tide. We had to get up again at sunrise, in order to make it on time regarding the drive of around 1.5 hours. And indeed - just as we park, four orcas swim into the lagoon. What luck! A short pleasure, of course, the animals move quite fast and pass. We are waiting about 2 hours for them to swim back and have one more chance to get the elegant hunters in front of the lens. At Caleta Valdés we also see a Magellan penguin colony. Time flies during a short conversation with an Australian guy. He tells us funny anecdotes from his 2-year trip in South America as a backpacker 20 years ago, where he was hired as a caiman catcher in Venezuela, among other things. We laugh our heads off.

Later we drive a bit further on the road to Punta Delgada, along the Atlantic coast. We definitely want to get orcas in front of the lens again. Not so easy to find the right place and a good opportunity - but not impossible :-) Finally, we see several orca families at the same time and don't even know where to look. Incredible to watch the 7m long killer whales chasing sea lion puppies on the beach. However, they don't seems to be seriously hungry; the attempts of the orca boys look rather playful. We can hardly believe our luck!

 Punta Delgada Orca Schwertwal Killerwal Puerto Piramides Peninsula Valdes Whale Watching Argentina Valdes Halbinsel Highlights Must see mmq Photography michael Marquardt
Lucky sea lions, the orcas don't seem seriously interested

Punta Delgada Orcas Schwertwale Killerwale Puerto Piramides Peninsula Valdes Whale Watching Argentina Valdes Halbinsel Highlights Must see mmq Photography michael Marquardt
An incredible spectacle right in front of our eyes...

Punta Delgada Peninsula Valdes Michael Marquardt mmq Photography Argentinien Highlights
Secret place at Punta Delgada :-)

Now we still need good shots of the southern right whales. They are said to be around the bays of Valdés, Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José, at that time of year. We want to stay on the coast of Golfo Nuevo for a few days and try our luck. Some of the beaches are outside the nature reserve and can be easily reached via a road (well, let's say bumpy dirt road). This means that staying overnight is also tolerated here. However, as we approach, we notice that the coupling on our Toyota is becoming increasingly loose, i.e. there is no longer any resistance. Oh dear, that's risky. We really don't want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. We decide to drive to a taller in Puerto Madryn, the closest town. It's not a big detour, not compared to the countless kilometers we've driven on the peninsula over the past few days. We already plan how and where we can bridge the waiting time for repairs or eventual spare part deliveries. At first glance, the taller of our choice looks a bit small. Surely no one speaks English here. I get very scared when I think about having to explain our technical problem in Spanish. There is not only a lack of vocabulary, but also of technical understanding. However, the two mechanics are super friendly and happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser. Well, the "problem" is quickly solved. The fluid in our hydraulic coupling was empty, so air was sucked in. Top up the brake fluid, release the air of the system and everything is up and running again. We are allowed to watch and learn a lot about our car. Seems that it is against the honor of the mechanics to charge money for this petty little matter. However, a bottle of red wine is always welcome :-)

We are very happy that everything went so smoothly and use the detour to Puerto Madryn for a shower and food shopping. The next day we head towards the coast of Golfo Nuevo. Only shortly after we arrive, we see whales. First, they are quite far away from the coast, around 2 km. But the more the tide comes in, the closer they come to shore. You could almost go swimming with them. To be honest, that's what I was planning to do. However, I didn't do it. Why? Not because I'm afraid of being swallowed by a whale. The argument can be quickly invalidated by "google". As a human you can get into the mouth of a whale, but you cannot be swallowed because the gullet is too small. No, the water is so cold that I decide against it, despite having a wetsuit. And we're not unpacking the kayak this time either. It's too windy. We have great respect for the currents.

From the beach you usually don't see much of the whale, except for a few centimeters of the back and the occasional blow. From a bird's eye view, however, it's a magical game. In the bay of Golfo Nuevo we only see mothers with their calves. This is probably due to the fact that they stay in the bays to protect themselves from predators and that they have to come to the surface more often with their calves. And the little ones seem quite playful, turning on their backs, jumping and flapping their tail fins. It's amazing to observe such a natural spectacle up close. The two drone batteries are charged alternately non-stop so that Micha can keep up with the whale frequency. In order to be able to take such pictures, quite a few things at a time are important. The wind must not be too strong and the whales need to be close to the shore. Micha experimented a lot at the limit and was on the edge of sinking his drone a few times when a strong headwind suddenly arised at a distance of 2.5 km. What a thrill. However, sometimes the whales were so close to the beach that we could watch them from the kitchen window. Such locations are simply priceless! In the evening, when the wind calmed down significantly, one could even hear the whales breathing.

Wale Glattwal Peninsula Valdes Golfo Nuevoe Puerto Madryn Routa 42 Argentinien Highlights Whale Watching Michael Marquardt mmq Photography
Whale mom with her calf

Wale Glattwal Peninsula Valdes Golfo Nuevoe Puerto Madryn Routa 42 Argentinien Highlights Whale Watching Michael Marquardt mmq Photography
The whale calf can often be found on the surface

We spend our last days in the area at Punta Ninfas, directly on the Atlantic Ocean, at the top of a steep cliff. You can only get there via a 62 km long bumpy dirt road - again. However, it is worth it. The view is breathtaking and we are mostly alone. The next morning we can watch orcas from the cliff. Unfortunately there is so much haze in the air that no usable recordings resulted. This probably adds another aggravating condition to get killer whales in front of the lens. Well... and the next morning, unfortunately, there were no orcas to be seen. Nature just cannot be controlled. This highlights once again how lucky we have been with our sightings so far. Nevertheless, the place is simply fantastic. Elephant seals and sea lions cavort on the beach, which can be reached via an adventurous path down the cliffs. They don't let us bother them.

Seelöwe Punta Ninfas Peninsula Valdes Puerto Madryn Argentinien Highlights Whale Watching Michael Marquardt mmq Photography
This elephant seal doesn't let itself be disturbed.

Seelöwe Punta Ninfas Peninsula Valdes Puerto Madryn Argentinien Highlights Whale Watching Michael Marquardt mmq Photography
... which is definitely contagious

Punta Ninfas Peninsula Valdes Puerto Madryn Argentinien Highlights Whale Watching Michael Marquardt mmq Photography
Punta Ninfas impresses with its remoteness

Before leaving the area, we decide to try kayaking one more time. However, Punta Ninfas is not suitable for this, as it is extremely windy and exposed to the open sea. We launch our kayak near Puerto Madryn, in the somewhat quieter Golfo Nuevo. Unfortunately we didn't find any whales willing to paddle with us, only a few penguins... still a great experience.

And with that, after 12 days, we say goodbye to the peninsula Valdés. Now we have a long drive ahead of us. Our next destination is Ushuaia, the end of the world. At the very south, on the last tip of land in Tierra del Fuego, lies the southernmost city on earth. And from there we head to our next adventure - Antarctica. However, it is still more than 2,000 km away. Luckily, gas prices in Argentina are phenomenal. We refuel for the equivalent of 0.52 € per liter. We haven't experienced such prices anywhere since we got our driver's license. Of course, a lot also depends on the exchange rate. We already noticed arriving in Buenos Aires that there was the so-called Blue Market course (>>> see our blog). At this rate, which is offered by private individuals for US dollars, but also by Western Union for money transfers, you get more than double the official bank rate. What is great for us, of course, is very sad for the Argentines, since the pesos is in a sustained downward spiral and thus, for example, travelling abroad is almost unaffordable. But why travel abroad when livning in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.


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