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On the whale trail in Patagonia

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.

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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.

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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.

When we pulled into the sleepy village of Puerto Piramide, it was time to put on life jackets and head out into Golfo Nuevo to look for whales. As Californians, we have taken numerous whale-watching cruises off our own coast, but never have we seen as many whales as we did from that small boat off the Argentine coast.

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The captain shut down the motor whenever we were near a southern right -- so named because in the distant past they were considered the “right” whale to hunt, a designation that nearly caused their extinction. As our boat drifted near the whales, the captain played classical music over the loudspeaker. “The whales seem to like the sound,” he said. Rarely have I been as moved as I was while listening to the swell of Handel’s “Water Music” and watching those giant creatures swim around us.

One whale got our attention when it dived under the boat; most passengers breathed a sigh of relief when the great whale’s head emerged on the other side. Southern rights weigh 30 to 80 tons and measure 35 to 60 feet in length. Their long, narrow heads take up a quarter of their bodies. They are easy to recognize because of their V-shaped water spouts and callosities (roughened skin or horny growth) on the top of their heads.

Our two hours on Golfo Nuevo passed quickly, despite the wind in our faces and brisk winter temperatures that never topped 50 degrees. We gratefully accepted the warmth of a fireplace and delicious pizza at a small restaurant in Puerto Piramide before reboarding the minibus and continuing our tour.

Our next stop was Punta Delgada, where a large colony of elephant seals lives year-round. From our vantage point on the cliffs above the beach we saw hundreds of large, noisy creatures that entertained us with their boisterous conversations and water acrobatics. On land the elephant seals -- some of which weigh up to 4 tons -- lumbered along clumsily, but once they plunged into the water they imitated Esther Williams.

Nearby was the Hotel Faro Punta Delgada, one of the only places offering overnight lodging on the peninsula. It was in an isolated but beautiful spot.

We continued on to Caleta Valdez, a sheltered bay that is home to sea lions and elephant seals. We hiked along a dirt path and watched a large group of young elephant seals that lolled on the beach like gossiping teenagers. By the time we began the long drive back to Puerto Madryn, the setting sun cast a rosy glow over the Patagonian steppes.

A more-than-three-ring circus

After a long day and a 250-mile circuit around the peninsula, we returned to our hotel. Dinner was at the Antigua Patagonia, where we enjoyed pastas and a salad buffet for a reasonable price. Argentine restaurants take great pride in their parrilla, or beef barbecue, but as vegetarians, we didn’t give it a try.

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The next morning we once again clambered into the minibus, happy to see a few more sights before returning to Buenos Aires. We drove around the pleasant city of Puerto Madryn, and, when we stopped to look for whales from a cliff outside town, we saw several out in the bay; the wind carried their conversational bellows to us. Then a rutted gravel road took us north of Puerto Madryn to Doradillo Beach, where we looked out at the tall cliffs fronting the same bay we had sailed on the day before. Because the tide was low, we could see the whales’ black and white bodies through the transparent water.

There were a few other people on the beach; we stood in silence save for our oohs and aahs and bursts of delighted laughter as the whales entertained us with a more-than-three-ring circus. Even their habit of submerging their heads and using their broad tail flukes to capture the wind was entertaining. The whales’ motive for acrobatics? Pure joy at being alive, it seemed to me. Watching the southern rights at Doradillo Beach was a mystical experience.

The whales are protected by a law that bans approaching, chasing, sailing, swimming or scuba diving with sea mammals. Almost extinct 10 years ago, the southern right whale has recuperated. Scientists estimate that more than 7,000 feed in the South Atlantic near Antarctica, then return to inshore waters like those of the Valdes Peninsula to mate and calve. As their numbers increase, so does the time they spend off the Argentine coast. The first whales now arrive in May; some stay until January.

We reluctantly left the whales at Doradillo Beach and drove to Gaiman, 40 miles southwest of Puerto Madryn. Nadia wanted to experience an old Welsh village, and Gaiman is one of several such towns that dot the Chubut River Valley. The Welsh are among many diverse cultures that helped settle Argentina; the language can still be heard in some areas.

We took a walking tour that included quaint, historic Welsh chapels and buildings. The highlight was te gales (Welsh high tea) at Casa de Te. We had enough food for a small army -- scones, chocolate cake, lemon bars, raspberry tart -- but we all wished we had spent the entire day watching whales instead.

“Water Music” has a new meaning for us now, and we’re thankful that the southern right whale, and all the peninsula’s creatures, have a protected home.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting a natural high on Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is available by flying Varig, LanChile or Copa to Buenos Aires, then Aerolineas Argentinas to Trelew. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,039.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 54 (country code for Argentina) and the number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Tolosa, 253 Roque Saenz Pena, Puerto Madryn, Argentina; 29-6547-1850, www.hoteltolosa.com.ar. Centrally located, simple and clean. Large breakfast included. Doubles from $28.50.

Hotel Faro Punta Delgada, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina; 929-6540-6304, fax 29-6545-8444, www.puntadelgada.com. We didn’t stay here, but the location is impressive. It offers the best of the peninsula’s solitude and beauty. Doubles from $28, breakfast included.

WHERE TO EAT:

Antigua Patagonia, Roque Saenz Pena y Mitre, Puerto Madryn; 29-6545-8738. Variety of dishes; many meals for less than $10.

In Gaiman, traditional Welsh tea is available at many teahouses for $12-$14.

TOURS:

Nievemar Tours, 493 Avenida Roca, Puerto Madryn; 29-654-55544, www.nievemartours.com.ar. Sample costs for one-day tours: Punta Tombo or Valdes Peninsula, $50.

Other tour companies are available in Puerto Madryn. Half-day tours can be taken to Doradillo Beach for whale watching or to Punta Loma, the sea lion sanctuary.

TO LEARN MORE:

Consulate General of Argentina, 5055 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90036; (323) 954-9155, www.consuladoargentino-losangeles.org.

Argentina Government Tourist Information, 12 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019; (212) 603-0443, www.sectur.gov.ar.


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