Once an area of vast rolling dunes, Punta del Este is by far Uruguay’s top destination for international tourism. Today, fancy resort hotels spike twenty stories into the azure sky, blocking the view of the sea. Exclusive yacht clubs and trendy restaurants have instead become the city’s trademarks. These establishments stand as a stark contrast to the simple fishing port, where we spent the morning interviewing people who still have a strong connection to the sea: the fishermen. We also filmed the owner of the city’s only sustainable whale watching boat, the Sea Warrior.
The group also interviewed OCC’s certified naturalist guide for the day, Gonzalo Millacet, who grew up in Punta del Este. Gonzalo gave us some valuable insights into how the area has changed throughout the years. Punta del Este is now a city of 10,000 whose skyline is filled with “shoeboxes” of hotels and skyscrapers, he said. Why? To support the enormous influx of summer tourists, which essentially doubles the population. This annual wave of visitors takes a toll on the city, the beaches, and the whales. Trash, gray water and constant boat traffic wreak havoc on the natural resources, including resident and migrating whales. Yet Punta del Este is still building mega-resorts along the coastline – without first assessing the environmental impacts. The irony: the very landscape that once made this coastline has been plowed under.
Gonzalo knew the best restaurants in town and took us to a little hole-in-the-wall café where we ate the best meal we’d had all week: fresh-from-the-ocean fish, rice, green salad, and homemade flan. Then we continued north along The Route of the Whale. Along the way we photographed the observation towers built by OCC and its network of volunteers and gathered B-roll of Uruguay’s odd coastal rock formations, which geologists concur were once part of Africa. We were astonished to see our first Southern Atlantic right whales, feeding on crustaceans and algae, their calloused heads rising to spout seawater. In La Paloma we made a final stop on an empty beach, where for the first time we observed migrating whales without binoculars, then arrived at La Posada del Barco in La Pedrera, our field headquarters for the next two weeks.
This was where our real work began – in the heartland of the Route of the Whale – with marine biologist Rodrigo García Píngaro, director and founder of OCC.