Stephanie Stefanski in Patagonia

Over the past three months, I had the privilege to meet and interview over 300 people in Patagonia. From backpackers in hostels to families on winter vacation, from French to English to Spanish to Portuguese, each complemented my interview with his or her own story and words of advice. Among these 300 I found friends, a family, and a network of people connected by their shared desire to witness the large numbers of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) protected by this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Peninsula Valdes was designated as such in 1999, in recognition of its global importance for the protection of marine mammal colonies and breeding grounds, specifically of the southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens), and southern right whales.

My study is an economic valuation of recreational uses for the southern right whales, elephant seals, South American sea lions, Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), and dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) found within this UNESCO World Heritage Site. My survey is a combination of a travel cost and contingent valuation study, with choice modeling.

The travel cost method will estimate a recreation value for the site based on the distances and expenditures made by visitors to arrive at this site. The contingent valuation portion contains two parts. First, I will estimate willingness to pay to see the different animals found within the site, to see which animals hold the highest ‘value’ for recreational value and what the relative demand is among the selection of animals available at this site. Second, I will estimate willingness to pay of visitors to manage the Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus) attacks on southern right whales (yes, attacks – more on that later…)

I had lived in Argentina before, but in the grand city of Buenos Aires. Puerto Madryn, the nearest ‘city’ to Peninsula Valdes, is another world in comparison.

June began quietly; with few friends and few tourists to interview, I spent my afternoons running along the beach, drinking cafe with whales in distant sight, writing and rewriting my survey, and biking to the Doradillo, a protected beach where whales can be seen only meters away. One day, I decided to visit the hostels in search of tourists. At first the responses were discouraging but, with little luck, Gaston of Hi! Patagonia greeted me with open arms and presented me to a table full of visitors. So began my daily visits to the hostel.

As I became more entrenched in the local lifestyle of Puerto Madryn, a lost and visibly upset German shepherd stray dog appeared on my doorstep. At first I tried to discourage him, but after two days, it was clear he had adopted me. Thanks to him, I finally met one of my neighbors, another student who had also adopted a street dog, and I began to feel more integrated with the surrounding community – to the point that tourists began asking me for directions!

By the end of June, my project and social life were beginning to take form in Puerto Madryn. A captain I had met here three years ago introduced me to the Bottazzi family, owners of one of the six whale watching companies in Puerto Piramides, Tito Bottazzi whale watching and tours. They generously offered to start taking me to the port where I could conduct surveys with ease, in exchange for helping them prepare passengers for embarking and other tasks in the office. For the months of July and August, I spent nearly every day in Puerto Piramides. From 9am until 5pm, I would conduct surveys and help with the hourly whale watching trips.

This exchange became crucial to the development of my project and the diffusion of the project to other organizations, administrators, and tour operators. I gave presentations to the Centro Nacional Patagonico, where I was based, and to the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco, and to the Administration of Peninsula Valdes – all in an effort to share my study and seek ground support for the distribution and collection of surveys, as well as future opportunities to share the results in hopes of informing management policies governing the living marine resources and habitat within the World Heritage Site. Compared with the 90 surveys I completed in June for the pre-test, I completed over 300 surveys during my time with the whale watching company.

Not only did I learn more about the management of the region, but also the inner workings of a whale watching business operating within the confines of a protected reserve. Due to the protected status of the whales, there is a limit of six whale watching companies, all located within Puerto Piramides. Except for occasions when the port closes due to inclement weather over a holiday weekend, each company is allowed only one boat in the Gulf at a time, to avoid over-crowding the whales. This poses challenges for high volume days, where many tourists may not be able to embark due to limited availability. During my interviews, I met frustrated tourists who had traveled from Buenos Aires (about 1400 km away) or even as far as Brazil to go whale watching in this site, only to be denied the opportunity due to limited space or inclement weather. On the other hand, the Gulf is a sanctuary for breeding, birthing, and nursing female whales, and the regulation is meant to maintain the peaceful nature of this habitat for the benefit of this recovering population.

Yet, after several whale watching trips, I observed an incredible interaction between the whale watching vessel and the whales. While some could care less about the vessel, and disappeared before the captain had the chance to change gears, many others approached the lancha with fierce curiosity. They would give incredible turns in an effort to see the passengers and shower the crowd with their exhalations. In other moments, females would use the boat to play “hard to get” with a group of eager males. Some days, it was hard to tell who was more curious, more eager to interact – the humans or the whales?

The southern right whales, like their cousins in the northern Atlantic, were nearly hunted to extinction by humans in the 19th century. Since then, the southern population has been able to recover to a healthy size. However, rather than being hunted by humans, the southern right whales are now attacked by kelp gulls.

The kelp gulls have no natural predators and their population growth has further benefited from fish discards and open garbage disposal waste sites. As recent as ten to fifteen years ago, a few clever gulls began pecking at whale flesh as an additional food source. More gulls have learned this behavior and now many whales can be viewed with a flock of gulls overhead. Opinions on this interaction seem divided – there are those who view it as a natural phenomenon that should be left alone whereas others advocate for direct human intervention. Many seem to favor improved management of disposal waste sites, so that they can no longer be used as a feeding site for gulls. While some actions have been taken, litter and trash can still be seen along the main route from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Piramides, and many tourists in my survey expressed concern for the pollution and garbage they saw littering the surrounding area. Meanwhile, the government has also implemented targeted shooting of gulls observed to be attacking the whales, in an effort to deter this learned behavior. The program is relatively new, and no clear results have been observed.

When I first arrived to Puerto Madryn in 2010, I was inspired by the large and healthy populations of marine mammals. However, I was also worried by the presence of water pollution, litter, a growing mortality of whale calves (the cause as yet unexplained), and the gull attacks on the whales. The abundance of life at this site makes it important for tourism, but also for fishing and oil extraction. Such a combination of human activities and species, all competing for the same habitat and resources, makes it an interesting case for an economic valuation study.

But after living there for three months, I experienced more than just a case study. I saw the site as a destination for families, couples, and back packers. As recent as twenty years ago, this site was hardly developed, and now its natural riches support a diversity of organizations and agencies. Yet, compared to many other cities in the world, it still preserves its natural and tranquil beauty. Here, you can run on the beach, listen to the powerful exhales of the whales to your left, watching the sun rise over the peaceful waters, or set behind the desert mesetas lining the city.

Stephanie Stefanski

Stephanie Stefanski is a Master of Environmental Science (MESc) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, with a focus on marine resource economics.

More Posts


  1. Pingback: Sage Magazine – School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Summer Blog ’13

  2. Pingback: Summer Research Summary: Peninsula Valdes, Argentina | Ocean Diplomat

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *