From Wales to Whales – Day 218

Fri 7th Sep

I’ve arrived in Puerto Madryn…a place I’ve wanted to come for years. I used to work with a girl from here in Menorca 15 years ago who told me how beautiful a place it was and told me it was the place to come to see the whales. I’ve pretty much wanted to come ever since.

I also learned years ago through a tv documentary about a group of welsh people setting off in the 1800s…opposed to being anglosized and wanting to protect their welsh roots and heritage, set off to start a new life in Patagonia. This is another reason this part of the world has been on my bucket list for some time.

This morning I set off for a stroll around the city

and up to the far end of the lovely coastal path

to Punta Cuevas where the Welsh settlers first arrived. So how have us Welsh got such links here and how did so many thousands of Welshie’s end up here thousands of miles away from the Land of our Fathers….

In the early 1800’s, industry within the Welsh heart lands, developed and rural communities began to disappear. This industry was helping to fuel the growth of the Industrial Revolution, with the supply of coal, slate, iron and steel. Many believed that Wales was now gradually being absorbed into England, and perhaps disillusioned with this prospect, or excited by the thought of a new start in a new world, many Welshmen and women decided to seek their fortune in other countries. Whilst many flocked to the States, they were always under great pressure to learn the English language and adopt the ways of the emerging American industrial culture and soon became as caught up in American life as the life they were trying to avoid back home in Wales.

In 1861 at a meeting held at the home of Michael Jones in north Wales, a group of men discussed the possibility of founding a new Welsh promised land other than the USA. One option considered for this new colony was in Canada, but an alternative destination was also discussed which seemed to have everything the colonists might need in Patagonia, Argentina.

Jones had been corresponding with the Argentinean government about settling in an area known as Bahia Blanca. The Argentinean government granted the request as it put them in control of a large tract of land. A Welsh immigration committee met in Liverpool and published a handbook, Llawlyfr y Wladfa, to publicise the scheme to form a Welsh colony in Patagonia which was distributed throughout Wales.

The first group of settlers, nearly 200 people gathered from all over Wales, but mainly north and mid-Wales, sailed from Liverpool in late May 1865 aboard the tea-clipper Mimosa.

Blessed with good weather the journey took approximately eight weeks, and the Mimosa eventually arrived at what is now called Puerto Madryn (where I am today) on 27th July. They hadn’t quite made it to Bahia Blanca and some of the first settlers here set up home in the caves that surround this rugged coastline. And this is where I am now – Las Cuevas de los Galesas.

This isn’t where they stayed but I will cover their next steps in a future blog when I get to those places in a few days.

Due to this being the point where my fellow welshmen arrived, there is a lot here to reference and honour this. There is of course flying high our awesome flag along with the Argentine one,

the caves are marked up with signs on the history

and there is a monument to the welsh settlers that arrived that lists all their names.

I’m not a nationalist but I am patriotic. I may have lived in Bristol for 17 years but my heart, my family and my roots are 100% welsh and made me who I am. It’s amazing and I feel a massive sense of pride to see our dragon flying high in such a far off land.

After a spot of lunch and a catch up with Jen, it’s time for the second part of today’s adventures….to Playa El Doradillo to see the Southern Right whales which is about 16kms away. You can hire bikes and go or do a tour but do to the wind I opt for the tour. I wasn’t aware of their entire season here in Puerto Madryn (which I now know to be May to Dec) but I was always told Sept was a good month and why I planned to be here for then.

In order to see them at close proximity, you need to go at high tide so we arrive around 5pm. Oh my god, I am not disappointed! Just driving along the coast you can see them jumping and tails splashing back into the water. Once on the beach and they’re only about 10m away, I am lost for words!

The southern right whale is a baleen whale and one of three species classified as right whales. This species is easily distinguished from others because of their broad back without a dorsal fin, wide pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye and small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its large head.

It has very dark grey or black skin, with occasional white patches on the belly. Its two separate blow holes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow. Southern rights have an enormous head which is up to one quarter of total body length. The callosities on the head are made of hard material, similar to human finger-nails, which appear white due to large colonies of whale lice called cyamids. The number, shape and position of the callosities are unique to each individual whale, and allow us to tell them apart. Southern right whales tend to have a large callosity at the front of the head, called a ‘bonnet’.

They get their name because they were the ‘right’ whale to catch: they were slow-swimming, floated when dead, and provided large amounts of valuable products – particularly oil for illumination and lubrication. Commercial whaling began in Australia in 1820, taking around 75% of the southern right whale population between 1835 and 1845, when the industry collapsed. It took another 90 years before they were officially protected.

An estimated 12,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern hemisphere, compared to an original population before whaling of more than 100,000. However, their numbers are growing at around 7% per annum and a census taken here estimated there are around 1600 Southern Right Wales in this region.

Facts

  • Length Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 5m to 6m at birth
  • Weight Adults: up to 80 tonnes; Calves: 1 to 1.5 tonnes at birth
  • Gestation: 11 to 12 months
  • Sexual maturity age: 9 to 10 years
  • Mating season: July to August
  • Cruising speed: 3km
  • Blow pattern: V-shaped bushy blow, up to 5m
  • Protected since 1935

The Southern Right Whale feeds by sieving small marine crustaceans through dense baleen plates in their mouths. They suck the water in through these plates and trap tiny krill in the sieve-like structures.

We have an hour and a half at the beach to marvel at these amazing creatures and I am completely and utterly blown away. It’s unique and magical moments like these, where I see and experience things so utterly different to life back home that reinforces that taking this year out to travel was the best thing I’ve ever done. Experiences such as this will live with me forever….wow wow wow!!!

AMAZING

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