I was born and raised in Córdoba, in central Argentina, several hundred kilometers away from the sea. Although I was only six years old, I vividly remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was on a summer vacation with my family in the coast of Uruguay, close to the Brazilian border. We camped for two weeks in a beautiful national park with long beaches in the western South Atlantic. When we arrived, in my excitement after two unending days in the car, I ran up a sand dune and suddenly saw it: the sea. It was so close, so vast, so appealing to me. I was captivated by the smell of the ocean breeze and the taste of la sal del mar on my skin in the days thereafter. The rhythmic sound of the waves pervaded my night dreams in the tent I shared with my brother, and I found myself entranced by thoughts of the hidden lives of billions of things out there, invisible to my childish eyes, but so intensely present under the waves. I knew then that the sea was something unrivaled in the natural world, and thereafter the scent of wet sand, rocks, and algae in the low tide have stimulated vibrant images in my mind.
Although the sea became a recurring presence in my thoughts, I lived twelve more years without the presence of whales in my life. The first time I saw a whale, in 1988, I was a college freshman visiting the remote Península Valdés in Patagonia. I was combing the beach for seashells when I heard a distant thunder coming from a calm, protected bay in Golfo Nuevo. I repeatedly looked into the horizon, searching for the source of the mysterious noise, but all I could see was the flat ocean surface. Suddenly, I saw the tremendous body mass of an adult southern right whale breaching out of the water in the distance and falling on its side with a colossal splash. A few seconds later, I heard the thunder again. I was bewitched.
That day, I knew I had to study whales.
What I did not know was that a long journey of personal migrations had begun, following the rhythm of the whales’ lives. After I graduated as a biologist, I traveled for one year around half of the world. I was surveying bat species in the Swiss Alps when I decided to send a letter to Vicky Rowntree in Utah. Vicky is the Director of the Right Whale Program at Península Valdés. In my letter I told Vicky that I wanted to pursue a career as a whale researcher upon my return to Argentina. A year later, we met in Buenos Aires. I listened with fascination to Vicky’s stories about the whales of Patagonia. The following whale season, in 1995, I was her field assistant in Península Valdés.
Twenty-five years have passed since I first saw a whale. Tonight, I am packing sleeping bags, tripods, cameras, binoculars and my clothes before driving 1,500 kilometers from Buenos Aires to Península Valdés with Diego Taboada, President of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (Whale Conservation Institute) in Argentina. Tomorrow, I will start what will be my 19th field research season stuyding the fascinating lives of southern right whales.
In the coming weeks we will share with you the adventure of living our daily lives with the whales of Patagonia!
August 2013 – in Buenos Aires
A historical photo at the Research Station in Península Valdés, Argentina: Roxana Schteinbarg (Executive Coordinator, ICB), Diego Taboada (President, ICB), Roger Payne (President, OA), Mariano Sironi (Scientific Director, ICB), Luciano Valenzuela (Researcher, ICB) and Vicky Rowntree (Director of the Right Whale Program, OA) during the celebration of the Right Whale Program’s 30th anniversary in 2000.