History and context
Whale watching in the Península Valdés region of Patagonia began in the mid-1970’s when boat owners took tourists out in small groups at irregular intervals to view southern right whales using the area1. At the time, southern right whales were severely depleted after years of hunting, and it was initially rare to see mothers and calves in the bays surrounding Península Valdés. However, as more industry and more tourists came to the region, whale watching activities steadily grew up through 1987, when the government first started to track statistics on the industry.1 At the time, Argentina’s participation in the International Whaling Commission and the 1974 declaration of the provincial marine park of “Golfo San José” (via Provincial Law No. 1238), were the only regulations in place to protect whales in the area.
Right whales were first protected by the 1931 Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was implemented from 1935 onward. Following this, and the global moratorium on whaling (1986), the southern right whale population off the coast of Argentina began to increase rapidly. By 1980 it was estimated that 168 breeding females were using the area, increasing to 328 by 19902. The rate of population increase was estimated to be 7%, and there was a shift in the whales’ distribution to the inside of the Golfo Nuevo, off the coast of El Doradillo3, where densities were as high as 6.5 whales/km2. This rendered whale watching activities more reliable and more rewarding for tourists. Five local operators were in place by 1987, a year in which government statistics documented 5,214 whale-watch tourists. Over the next 13 years, the number of whale watch tourists increased by an average of 6,275 tourists per year to reach nearly 70,000 by the year 20001. Although the southern right whales are only present between June and December, a variety of other marine mammal species attract tourists in the “off season”: acrobatic dusky and other dolphins; elephant seals and sea lions; and the now -famous killer whales that launch themselves onto the beach to catch sea lion and southern elephant seal pups. Due to the nearshore (or onshore) distribution of many of these marine mammals, tourists can enjoy land-based wildlife watching activities as well as boat-based whale-watching. In 2006, 80% of visitors to Peninsula Valdes arriving between June and December engaged in whale-watch tourism, and over 61 million USD of revenue was generated either directly or indirectly for Argentina through whale watching tourism.4