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On the whale trail in Patagonia

The Valdes Peninsula is an open-air zoo that is considered one of the world's most significant marine preserves.

March 02, 2003|Anne Broyles | Special to The Times

Valdes Peninsula, Argentina

The great whale's breath exploded through two blowholes on top of its head, punctuating the stillness of a winter day. Doradillo Beach's grand expanse was empty, save for a few hardy souls who stood on the sand at low tide watching southern right whales cavort in Golfo Nuevo off the Argentine coast.

"We've counted over 130 whales already this morning," a volunteer at the Doradillo Beach whale-watch station told us. Looking in any direction we could see evidence of eight to 10 of the creatures -- the telltale V-shaped spout, a side flipper waving, a smooth "footprint" on the ocean surface, or two or three massive tails displayed as whales hung vertically upside down in the water.

We were impressed. Unmindful of human presence, these extraordinary creatures frolicked as if performing for snacks at SeaWorld. One whale appeared to be practicing somersaults. Another repeatedly leaped out of the water (breaching, whale experts call it), executing the maneuver seven times. Mothers and their young swam at leisure together. Others raced along.

My 21-year-old daughter, Trinity, husband Larry and I had come to Argentina to visit Nadia, our 22-year-old foreign exchange "daughter." She had lived with us in our Malibu home in 1998. While researching Argentina's rich offering of tourist locations I discovered the Valdes Peninsula, on the eastern coast of Argentine Patagonia. It is considered one of the most significant marine reserves on the planet.

Other whale-watching locales may be more convenient for travelers, but the Valdes Peninsula has much more than the giant cetaceans to recommend it. Imagine a place where unique creatures live as they have for centuries, undisturbed. British naturalist Charles Darwin, exploring Patagonia aboard the Beagle in 1832, was astounded by the region's biodiversity.

Southern right whales, Patagonian foxes and hares, guanacos (relatives of llamas), Magellanic penguins, sea lions, orcas, Commerson's dolphins and elephant seals thrive in protected areas on the Valdes Peninsula.

Our visit began last July with a two-hour flight south from Buenos Aires to the small international airport at Trelew. Our prearranged guide, Karina, met us at the airport and accompanied us in a minibus 40 miles north to Puerto Madryn, a city of 50,000 that lies an hour from the entrance to Valdes Peninsula.

We checked into the simple but clean Hotel Tolosa, then strolled through the city in search of dinner. The entrees at the restaurant we found were forgettable, but we loved dessert: thin pancakes with creamy caramel sauce called panqueques con dulce de leche.

After a good night's sleep we enjoyed the hotel's abundant breakfast buffet, especially Argentina's signature medialunas, sweet glazed croissants in the shape of a half-moon. By 8:30 a.m. we were on the minibus with our guide and another tourist, an American Field Service student from Switzerland.

For the next 12 hours we rumbled over the dirt and gravel roads of the Valdes Peninsula, seemingly lost in an older, wilder place and time. The peninsula juts out from northern Chubut province in the shape of a sickle. Two shallow bays provide shelter for the southern right whales: Golfo San Jose on the north of the isthmus leading to the peninsula, and Golfo Nuevo on the south.

We crossed the Carlos Ameghino Isthmus into what has been called "the open-air zoo of the South Atlantic." Our first stop was at the Valdes Peninsula Animal Reserve, where a small visitor center gave us a good overview of the myriad creatures travelers can hope to see in this World Heritage Site. We'd never heard of many: the least seedsnipe, tawny-throated dotterel and elegant-crested tinamou among them.

Back in the minibus, we bumped along, stopping from time to time to view herds of guanacos and the oddly-put-together mara, or Patagonian hare. Nadia said she thought it looked like a combination rabbit and dog as the long-eared rodent loped away on its long, decidedly unbunnylike legs. We saw herds of sheep -- most of the peninsula is privately owned ranchland where 80,000 sheep graze. Patagonian foxes, armadillos, skunks and lesser rheas (like small ostriches) also live along the dusty roads of the peninsula, which was discovered by Spaniard Juan de la Piedra in 1779.

Dusty desert steppe

We were so busy watching for animals that we paid little attention to the Patagonian desert steppe on which we traveled. Although scientists can catalog 130 plant species, we didn't notice much variety in the low grayish-green shrubs that dotted the sand. Most of the peninsula's interior is flat; rocky cliffs stretch down to its sandy beaches. Temperatures range from zero to 59 degrees in the winter, 60 to 95 in the summer.

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