The Whales Of Patagonia

Richard Ellis
Fall 2006

I was about to make my first underwater acquaintance with a right whale. I felt like a spelunker entering a cave where the visibility is extremely limited but I knew there was a monster there – and I was heading right for it. Even though the water was relatively clear, you cannot see a whale under water until you are almost upon it. First, a vague, dark shadow looms out of the flickering green distance, and it soon begins to materialize into a whale. I was approaching from the rear, and the whales probably did not know or care that I was there.

Darwin never saw (or didn’t report on) the right whales of Patagonia, visible in the inshore waters of Península Valdés, a hammer-shaped projection that juts into the South Atlantic. With the humpbacks of Hawai‘i and the killer whales of Puget Sound, the right whales of Patagonia are perhaps the best-known wild cetaceans on earth. They are the only large population of right whales remaining in the southern hemisphere. (There are small populations off Australia and South Africa, but nothing compares to the Patagonian population of southern right whales, which may number as many as 700 animals.)

The word that comes immediately to mind when one sees these huge animals is "awesome." One is simply not prepared for any living thing to be that large. Right whales move with a ponderous, gentle grace, almost always in slow motion. Even when leaping from the water, they emerge more slowly than they ought to. It takes a tremendous amount of speed and power to launch a 50-foot, 50-ton whale, and yet there is no sense of speed, only strength. A massive black form emerges from the water, falling back after a half-twist (so as not to land on its belly) in an eruption of displaced white water. If dolphins are staccato, then right whales are the slow movement, a deep, powerful basso profundo.

The right whales of Patagonia are safe – at least for the moment – but their relatives in the North Atlantic are not. Breeding off Florida and Georgia, and then heading north to Cape Cod or the Gulf of Maine, the northern right whale is probably the most endangered large mammal in the world. They become entangled in fishing nets or are struck by ships, and the remaining population is inadequate to repair the damage. Even with full protection, scientists say, the northern right whale will be extinct in as little as 50 years.

The imminent extirpation of some marine mammals is symptomatic of our disregard for the creatures that share our terrestrial habitat. In North America, we have cut down most of the large predators – eagles, bears, wolves, mountain lions – which in turn has led to a proliferation of their prey animals. Where there was once a balanced cycle, with enough prey animals to keep the predators from killing sheep and cattle, we now kill the predators because they are a threat to livestock, and then kill the prey animals because they have proliferated to destroy gardens and crops. We do not usually think of baleen whales as predators, but of course they are. Because they eat tiny prey items such as krill, copepods or small fishes, we tend to regard them as grazers – or perhaps as swallowers, skimmers or gulpers – but their food is composed of living animals when they eat it, and they are as predatory as sharks or tigers. There are no vegetarian whales. In the same way as removing other predators from the marine food chain leads to an increase in those animals they would have preyed upon, removing the whales changes the balance, almost always in a detrimental fashion.

About 200 yards offshore we had spotted our first whale, a yearling, vigorously cavorting around a larger whale, probably his mother. We had decided against scuba tanks and regulators, assuming that any contact with the whales would take place on or near the surface. They are air-breathing mammals of course, but more importantly, if they dove to get away from us or for any other reason, we could not possibly follow them.

Propelled as much by my enthusiasm as by my momentum, I drifted over the 10-foot flukes (tail fins) of the baby. As I approached the gracefully proportioned triangular lobes, I realized immediately where the power came from: huge, flexible vanes, attached to muscles powerful enough to launch this immensely solid behemoth completely out of the water. I tried to brake, but as I brought my legs up, the calf gently raised its great horizontal tail fin and brushed it against my thigh. Startled by my unexpected presence, the calf propelled itself forward with a downward thrust of its tail. The resulting turbulence tumbled me head over teakettle and disturbed the sand bottom (we were only in about 25 feet of water), so that the mother and calf vanished in an underwater sandstorm.

When I regained my equilibrium and surfaced, I tried to retain the image of the great black-and-white animals (the baby was marked with white on its back as well as on its belly) suspended in the green water. I knew as I climbed aboard the boat that I had accomplished what I had come to Patagonia for: I had experienced the whale in the water.

I was never afraid when I was in the water with the right whales of Patagonia, but now I am afraid for them.

About the Author

Richard Ellis, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has traveled around the world in search of his subject matter. He is the author of 17 books, including The Book of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, Great White Shark, The Search for the Giant Squid, The Empty Ocean, Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn and, most recently, Singing Whales and Flying Squid: The Discovery of Marine Life.