Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Whales of the Strait

One major highlight of any Patagonian cruise is the wildlife. From the decks of any vessel, and on land excursions, passengers can enjoy the sight of countless birds – many of them unique to the Southern Hemisphere – and marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions. Literally and metaphotically, though, the biggest attraction is the whales.
On Argentina’s Península Valdés, Puerto Pirámides (pictured above) is the continent’s main whale-watching site; from July (mid-winter) to November (late spring), pods of southern right whales arrive to mate and give birth. Most visitors arrive from the town of Puerto Madryn, which has cruise-ship facilities, though Madryn gets many more overland travelers. Most Pirámides vessels are larger catamarans that can seem crowded, though it’s not quite mass tourism – some smaller rigid inflatables get closer to the animals.
For visitors to southern Patagonia, though, there are more intimate options, viewing southern humpbacks (pictured above) in the western Strait of Magellan. In January and February, operating out of Punta Arenas, Cruceros Australis does special whale-watching itineraries that make a detour to Isla Carlos III before returning to their usual Beagle Channel route to Cape Horn and Ushuaia. In rigid inflatables, passengers can get even closer to these gregarious (and enormous) animals.
I’ve never taken that specific itinerary, but I have visited the western Strait on two other occasions. A decade ago, I took one of the earliest trips with Whalesound, which converted a small river vessel from Argentina in a comfortable shuttle for a dozen or so travelers to Isla Carlos III, where it had set up a dome-tent camp (pictured above) connected by boardwalks to its dining room/clubhouse (pictured below). During the day, the ship took us to see the whales, but it was also possible to hike to sea lion and penguin colonies.

More recently, in January, I took a two-night one-day excursion on board the M/V Forrest (pictured above) with Punta Arenas’s Expedición Fitz Roy, which has rehabbed a vessel that formerly hauled wool around the Falkland Islands, where I first saw it in 1982. The accommodations are cozy – cabins with two or four bunks each – but the dining lounge is comfortable and the exterior decks provide plenty of opportunity for cetacean close-ups. The Forrest also makes a side trip to Isla Santa Inés (pictured below), shuttling passengers ashore for close-ups of the glacier there.

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