Mosaic / September 23, 2009

Argentine Adventures

The Knox Buenos Aires program never fails to hook students up with weekend excursions that focus on some of the most incredible sights of nature this side of the equator. This past weekend, we made our way down the coast to Puerto Madryn, in Patagonia. Puerto Madryn is famously the home of friendly whales, a colony of penguins, sea elephants which you can get terrifyingly close to, and plenty of big cliffs to climb.

Most students had their doubts about hopping off a plane and immediately going scuba diving in the Atlantic ocean, but it proved to be successful—with nary a death among us. Each of us dove under for 20 minutes, the only sound around us was the mechanical inhale and exhale of the tank keeping us alive. Two of us dove at a time, and while waiting on the boat for our turn, we could see massive creatures surfacing above the water not so far away. Doubt filled our hearts for just a fleeting moment. We soon realized we were in the presence of whales.

There is something otherworldly about truly seeing whales for the first time. They don’t seem real. They seem like they are too large to exist, too pure, too perfect, and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to locate their eyes or mouths when looking at them makes it even more surreal. Seldom can you see the entire body out of the water at one single moment (unless you see a jump, which we were lucky enough to see a few times). Most of the time, a single fin emerges, and then a different one, and then a smooth belly or a rough barnacle. It’s forever a mystery what the thing really looks like as a whole. It simply rotates, teasing you. A windmill with eyes.

The day after scuba diving, we went out on another boat, to get closer to these wondrous creatures. Our guide informed us that it was important to stay totally silent as not to disturb their natural habitat. Shutting up proved fruitful; the whales came up to our boat, no more than 15 feet away. There were three or four involved in a mating ritual of some kind, and another pair of a mother and baby. One of the most fascinating whales, though, was one that would remain vertical in the water for 10 minutes at a time, only the tail visible, which we learned is done to regulate body temperature.

After the surreal whaling experience, we ventured down a sandy, sliding cliff to reach a beach that was the home to a graveyard of animal bones and massive sea elephants. Our guide continuously assured us that it was okay to get, “A little bit closer…a little bit closer…a little bit closer” until we could nearly touch the things. We had to remind ourselves that even though they looked too fat to chase us, that probably wasn’t the case. This was confirmed when one began its descent down the beach to the ocean, and though we were initially in its way, that certainly did nothing to stop it. Shortly thereafter, we made our way back up the cliff.

Puerto Madryn is a town that has made its money and fame off of being home to some of the most incredible creatures around. The town lives off its whales, and seeing them in the flesh is definitely one of the most beautiful things, surely, that this country has to offer.

Annie Zak

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