We travelled up the east coast of Argentina to visit Puerto Madryn, an uninspiring seaside city which is the gateway to the Peninsula Valdes reserve. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site which covers 400km of coastline ranging from cliffs, bays, lagoons and mudflats.
A lot of breeding goes on all these coasts with the Southern sea lion, Southern elephant seal and the Southern right back whale all mating and calving no further away than the shadows of the cliffs.
We took a boat out to see the whales and we were amazed to see several. We even saw a Moby Dick-esque white whale which was amusing to me, as I was in a coarse acting show, playing the back end of the Moby Dick whale.
I was supposed to hilariously blunder about the stage trying to find a way out, but I did actually get lost on stage as I couldn’t see out of the costume and had to be guided offstage by another actor. I got a decent round of applause so it was all the worth it.
During our boat trip, we got to see the Southern right back whales up close with their young and playing with the black and white Commerson’s dolphins that reside in the shallow waters on the Southern coast. They are known for swimming upside down to increase their visibility when searching for prey. I very much enjoyed seeing these interactions that I’d only previously seen on film. Those two species really have a good time together.
If you’ve ever seen a wildlife documentary where orcas throw themselves onto the beach to catch seal pups then this is one of the places where it all happens. I actually met a couple who drove along the coast and saw this happen on a secluded beach. Lucky bastards.
If you’ve ever watched the likes of Blue Planet or the Life of Mammals then you will know that orcas are notorious for inventing clever and violent schemes to attack their prey and would happily take down a whale calf during migration.
In contrast, many whales possess an intelligence and demeanour that they share with dolphins where they actually seek out human contact or work in partnership with people which is fascinating and something which I find quite inspiring. From the accounts of divers and scientists who spend a long time studying these animals, the Southern right back whale gets rave reviews in that they are friendly creatures and a joy to be around.
As I am a big fan of such wildlife documentary films I would like to share some interesting behaviour of these intriguing aquatic species.
In the town of Laguna in Brazil, the local fishermen and bottlenose dolphins have developed a business partnership whereby they work together to help each other catch fish and the main beneficiaries of this collaboration are the human beings. Presumably, this interaction developed from the fishermen and dolphins spending long periods of time on the coast together to the extent that they learned each other’s behaviours.
As the fisherman have very poor visibility in the murky water they are very much reliant on the dolphins to herd the fish towards them. The dolphins then signal to the fishermen to cast their nets by slapping their heads and tails against the water.
This breaks up the shoal so they can be easier for them to catch but as dolphins are so adept at catching fish anyway that it is interesting to know what they get out of the arrangement. Is it because they enjoy the collaboration and gain some sort of satisfaction from it? My theory is that on some level they do gain from it.
The Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a summer home for grey whales and in this area, they actively seek out tourist boats and allow tourists to hug and kiss them. However, they are critically endangered in Asian waters due to vast quantities of dolphin and whale meat being so sought after that dolphins are rounded up into a lagoon and stabbed to death until the water turns red.
This raises the question of whether it is wise to continue these fledgling relationships with intelligent marine mammals when they travel around the world to areas of sea where they will be harpooned rather than hugged, not to mention the damage a boat propeller can cause.
This is definitely not the case in Vietnam where whales are sacred animals, they are endowed with the title of ‘Ngai’, a term also used on Emperors and Kings as well as other highly respected human beings. Dead whales are dragged to shore and nearly 3,000 people will attend a last rites service before the whale is buried in a huge coffin.
They later built a tomb to honour the creature at the final burial site. Vietnamese fishermen believe that whales bring luck and safety whether they are dead or alive, this is because according to folk stories whales have saved the lives of fishermen in peril out at sea.
Now, I understand that people hunt whales and that this is a part of culture and tradition for different nationalities. However, I do believe limits are very important and the needless and reckless depletion of species will only cause harm to us if it continues.
Not least because the loss of any species is a loss to us whichever way you look at it. If we allow ourselves as intelligent and resourceful human beings to pollute the earth and exist in a way that causes a sustained reduction in our natural resources then we have certainly failed as a species.
Another potential benefit of whales that I absolutely couldn’t resist and I promise I will move on after this (until the chapter on pink river dolphins) is whale poo. It was discovered a few years ago that this excrement acts as a fantastic ocean fertiliser and as this is good for plants it serves to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The dung has actually become a vital part of marine ecosystems as krill eat iron-rich algae and whales eat the krill and via their waste products they reintroduce iron into surface waters. Now, how good is that? Apparently, this research came about from a pub chat between Antarctic scientists in Tasmania which is far more stimulating than anything I’ve ever heard in a bar.
This theory was explored and proven in a recent Channel 4 documentary called Jimmy and the Whale Whisperer where the affable pair of scientists collected dung samples from sperm whales that live in the Caribbean off the coast of Dominica. They proved that the poo was indeed a magnificent fertiliser for algae and that the whales preferred to feast on squid that lived in the murky ocean depths.
This means that as they defecate in the surface waters and redistribute the nutrients that would be lost to the bottom of the ocean. This means that the whale is the oceanic equivalent of the earthworm when you put it in the tank and it mixes the layers of soil together to make richer soil, the whale makes a richer ocean. For the circle of life to complete, it needs to move its bowels.
One last disturbing fact about these whales is due to their penchant for squid they cannot distinguish between these boneless creatures and plastic bags. When dead whales undergo a scientific post-mortem they are pulling enough bags out of their stomachs to make a small tent.
I’m unsure if the pollution is more disturbing or the fact that we have created a form of plastic that won’t be broken down even by the stomach acid of a large whale.
It certainly makes a compelling argument as to why we should preserve our habitats so that our food can survive and that we can continue to live on a population of fish that is untainted by our lax approach to waste disposal.