PENINSULA VALDES, Argentina - Deep in wintertime Patagonia, the gulfs of this peninsula are the breeding grounds of the right whale, the rarest kind on Earth. Only right now, they suddenly don't seem so rare: In numbers not seen in half a century, randy males are heeding the call of the wild, romancing enormous females playing with their calves. Just for the fun it, dozens of dark, burly beasts are leaping and twirling from the water like 55-ton ballerinas.
It's a scene that has scientists worldwide both excited and slightly mystified.
Indeed, for the first time since their contact with humankind, things here are finally going right for the endangered right whale - so dubbed, experts say, because early whalers considered them the "right" whale to hunt. They are one of the few whales that float, rather than sink, after being harpooned, making them the easiest targets for whalers before more sophisticated techniques expanded hunting to other species.
At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 60,000 right whales worldwide, but since the animals - which measure 55 feet or more - were prized for having the thickest blubber of the big whales, they were targeted by whalers.
Even after right-whale hunting was banned in 1937, they were poached mercilessly. The killings brought both the northern and southern species of right whale to near extinction; in the early 1970s there was an estimated world population of only 4,000. Today, there are an estimated 7,000 whales.
Now, scientists are calling what's happening here one of the most important recoveries of a whale species this century. The number of southern right whales here has ballooned to about 2,500 from 360 in 1971, and they are reproducing at the extraordinary growth rate of about 7 percent a year. The bays along the coast here now harbor almost half of the whale's world population.
Compare that with the currently recorded number of 300 northern right whales, which range off the coast of the United States from Maine to Florida. Their population, up from 250 about 10 years ago, is far more unstable and genetically weak, edging up about 2 percent a year and enduring a far-greater rate of infant mortality, whale experts say.
Pollution, commerce suspected
Although scientists are still at a loss to explain the vast difference in growth rates, they are leaning toward the most obvious answer: Right whales here are confronted with less man-made pollution and commerce than their northern cousins.
"I think you could call what's happening in Argentina a case study on how to bring a species of whale back from the edge of extinction," said Roger Payne, a leading American whale expert who founded a field station here in 1971 to study southern right whales. "Take the negative human effect out of the equation and you've got great chances for success."
Southern right whales live in seas far less traveled by commercial shipping vessels than their northern cousins, who are of the same genus but are a distinct species bearing slightly different markings. Almost 60 percent of northern right whales bear scars - some deep enough to eventually kill them - from run-ins with large ships.
No similar statistics are available for southern right whales, but scientists say scarring is far less prevalent here. Patagonia is sparsely populated, with seven people per square mile, and has no large ports or population centers. That also means less pressure from pollution in the waters, which scientists believe is causing serious problems for the northern whales, especially their young.
Despite mounting commercial fishing in the waters off Argentina's continental shelf, the whales also have found a friend in the Argentines. Argentines took a leading role in banning commercial whaling in the 1980s, though poachers - in particular the Japanese, Norwegians and Russians - continue to harvest dozens of whales.
`Living national monuments'
The Argentines quickly learned that protection of whales was to their mutual benefit. Here in windswept coastal Patagonia, a semi-arid, often-frigid region dotted with desert shrub and inhabited by guanacos - oversized llamas - sea lions, sea elephants and penguins, the advent of whale watching has helped make tourism the biggest industry in the state of Chubut, outweighing aluminum mining and textile production.
To maintain the industry, and the whales, the Argentines designated the Gulf of San Jose - one of the whales' most important breeding grounds on Peninsula Valdes - a whale reserve, which is strictly monitored. The waters here are ideal for breeding, scientists say. The whales are attracted to the narrow inlets 15 to 30 feet deep, thought to be perfect for nursing newborn calves.
The whales themselves are considered "living national monuments," the highest level of protection afforded to animals in Argentina. Strict population and zoning limits have been set on towns here, and the number of whale-watching boats and customers are regulated. A master plan being developed for the coastal region of Patagonia is considering even stricter development rules.
But there are signs that humans here, too, are having a negative impact. Some nations, such as South Africa, have put laws into effect that limit whale watching to boats without engines. Argentina permits power boats, but some skippers don't always obey regulations to cut their engines within 110 yards of the animals.
Seagulls plague the whales
Population growth on this peninsula and the increase in commercial fisheries have created another problem. Though the whales come here only to mate and not to feed, the onshore fisheries have lured thousands of seagulls that gouge the skin of the whales' backs.
"The whales hate it," said Victoria Rowntree, director of the Right Whale Program of the the Whale Conservation Institute. "It's obvious - when they're bitten, they turn around and dive to avoid the gulls," which, she said, "especially go after the babies. Sometimes, the gashes are very deep."
The whales migrate to Patagonia to breed after spending months building up their fat by feeding in the colder waters near Antarctica. In the past, they were noted only in September and October, but now they are abundant from June through December. No one knows exactly why - it could be that people just notice them more, but others have postulated that higher water temperatures from global warming have changed their mating habits.
"We'll continue trying to find the key," said Mariano Coscarella, a marine biologist with the National Patagonian Center. "But right now, I just want to enjoy it. I live across from the beach, and in the mornings, I'm woken up by the sound of whales breathing in the gulf. . . . What can I say? It is the most beautiful sound I've heard in my life."