For a nineteenth century Welsh immigrant arriving in Puerto Madryn after two months on a boat, the landscape of their new Patagonian home must have been quite a disappointment. The miles and miles of flat and featureless shrubland would surely not have been a patch on the Welsh valleys they left. Nevertheless, a small group did arrive in 1865 and a certain historical (if not entirely cultural) pride does remain at the fact. The rather quaint Welsh Museum had a few nice stories and, enticingly, a mockup of a Welsh Tea Shop. I’m not sure the Welsh would have subscribed to it’s closing for siesta though, which might be telling.

Unfortunately for us Brits desperate for a decent cuppa, all the best tea shops are a few hours south, and we were really only in Puerto Madryn for one reason alone, the abundance of marine wildlife to be seen on the protected Península Valdés, which sticks flat and stingray-shaped off the coast about an hour’s drive away.

The biggest draw here at this time of year are the Southern Right Whales, who come to breed and give birth in the peninsular’s sheltered waters from June to December. It was across the somewhat choppy waves here that we bobbed in a small tour boat, hoping to see them.

We had been told that we would be certain to see the whales. Even so, a little worryingly for the pessimists in the party (guess who), we were also reminded that this was not a zoo, and that it would rely on our luck to see anything really good. Other instruction included a lecture from the crew about staying on one side or the other of the boat, as moving would unbalance it and potentially capsize us. As usual, this was heeded by most, and ignored by those with the biggest photography equipment to lose ‘in the drink’, although quite frankly the size of some of those ridiculous camera lenses alone could have toppled a bigger vessel. Eventually even these selfish individuals got the point when they’d been shouted at enough.

It didn’t take long and we hadn’t begun to get too queasy before we spotted our first whale, away in the distance near another boat, and it soon became clear that there were plenty out there. We were not to be disappointed: soon we had company less than twenty feet away.

It’s hard to describe quite how impressive and breathtaking these creatures were. We have seen beautiful macaws in the jungle, a two-hundred strong herd of wild pigs, seen and heard howler monkeys and cayman, but nothing was as emotionally powerful as witnessing a vast marine mammal at such close quarters. When one came within what seemed like touching distance of the boat, our international gasping was in chorus.

We were treated to tail slapping (thought to be a form of communication) from both adult and baby whales, blow hole pyrotechnics and, at one point, the amazing site of a sixty ton whale leaping out of the water (breaching). The slight sea sickness and drenching with spray was forgotten. Our most distant and strange mammal relatives, who filter krill through their toothless, bearded mouths and yet suckle their young with milk, were a truly majestic sight.

An hour and a half and an almost non-stop whale show later, we returned to dry land to steady our legs and our stomachs, have lunch and prepare to tour the rest of the island. After the amazing spectacle of the whales, not much was going to come close, but we were pleased to see both elephant seals (at a distance) and nesting penguins (very close). A far bigger penguin colony, the biggest outside of Antarctica, is an hour or so south of Puerto Madryn (near the tea shops, no doubt), so compared to some half a million or more penguins there, our sightings were paltry. Nevertheless, it was still great to see these interesting and naturally comical birds who couldn’t care less that a bunch of camera-wielding tourists are standing over their shoulders.

As for the elephant seals, although we learned plenty about them – they can dive without breathing for two hours, for example – we didn’t see much action. Those that we saw were mostly pups who had just shed their coats and a few juveniles who were still resting up, flicking pebbles onto their backs to keep cool. In the sea, these animals are no doubt experts. On land they look prone, exhausted and still.

It has been an epic journey to visit Patagonia. We spent over the odds, covering vast distances, mainly by road, through mostly uninspiring landscape. But the highlights have amazed. With the sounds of booming crashes of enormous shards of shattering glacial ice ringing in our ears, and the memory of the awe-inspiring sight of a huge and regal whale’s tail flicking upwards before disappearing underwater, we are returning to Buenos Aires knowing that sometimes the hard parts of South American travel really are worth it.

One Comment to “Whales And Wales – Puerto Madryn”

  • So envious! Truly awe inspiring stuff! Imagine the first discoverers reaction!