As a rule of thumb, the best time to visit the fauna-rich Patagonian coastline is the austral summer, when penguins, elephant seals, and other beasts that spend the winter at sea come ashore to breed. Winter, though, is when the great right whales arrive to breed and birth at Argentina's Península Valdés, where the season has already begun at the village of Puerto Pirámides, near the city of Puerto Madryn. Some whales stay until December, but the season is strongest from July to October.
Chile, though, is bidding to enter the whale-watching sweepstakes in a big way. For a few years now, from December to April in the austral summer, the research biologists who run Punta Arenas-based Whalesound have been taking small groups on a slow boat to Isla Carlos III, in the Strait of Magellan, which has the southern hemisphere's largest humpback feeding grounds. On the island, which lies along a major international shipping channel, there's a sheltered, comfortable camp with sturdy dome tents (essential in this often inclement climate).
Whale-watching could be getting even bigger in Chile, though. Last week Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that the country's entire 6,000-km coastline will become a whale sanctuary. The next likeliest whale-watching destination will be the southern end of the Isla Grande de Chiloé, where the Gulf of Corcovado - not so far from the volcano-evacuated port of Chaitén - has one of the region's largest blue whale populations.