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Argentina’s Growing Whale-Watching Industry

Jutting out from Argentina’s east coast some 800 miles south of Buenos Aires, the oddly shaped piece of land known as Peninsula Valdés has become known as one of the best places in the world to observe the southern right whale. From May to December, close to 1,000 of these whales gather in the waters just off the coast of Chubut to reproduce, making this the prime time for whale-watching tours in the region.

Citing a report entitled “State of Whale Watching in Latin America,” published in 2008 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Global Ocean, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Marcela Valente noted in a recent Tierramérica article that whale-watching tours are “making a vital socioeconomic contribution” to Argentina’s economy. In fact, whale tourism has grown 11.3 percent each year since 1998, triple the rate of growth for international tourism in the region.

Tour operators are sensitive to the whale population and their breeding season and ask guests to follow strict guidelines while on the tours. Tourists are not allowed to throw garbage out of the boat, shout or touch any of the whales as they get closer to them.

Boats are required to follow specific guidelines as well. For instance, no boats may approach mothers and their young until after August 31, and each boat must stay 50 meters away from the whales, especially when they breach. The Patagonia Nature Foundation monitors tour operators to make sure they are abiding by these rules.

The Patagonia Technique and the Best Practices Code for Whale Watching, established in 2007, also impose further rules to protect the whales. A maximum of six companies may operate in the area, with one boat per company at a time, each with a maximum capacity of 70 passengers. Boats must be silent and, to avoid pollution, may not have oil-powered engines.

The whales around Peninsula Valdés are among the approximately 7,000 southern right whales living in the southern hemisphere. They differ from other whales in that they don’t have belly furrows or flippers on their back. A long, narrow jaw accounts for as much as a quarter of their body length. From their blowholes, they spray a V-shaped water stream that can be seen from miles away.

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