Philippe Bourget - 2012-12-10
Quintay is a discreet Chilean village located near Valparaiso, 120 kilometres from Santiago. Whaling was its economical mainstay for many years, until the industry was banned in 1967. A museum tells the story of this port, now reconverted to accommodate diving enthusiasts.
He’s 73 years old, teeth in disarray and eyesight faltering. At the ticket booth of the Museo de la Ballenera (Whaling Museum), Pedro Ernesto Tronche Marin presents himself as being Quintay’s last surviving whaler. The two years of his youth spent chasing the cetaceans forged his character, he says. ‘It’s was hard and cruel. We hunted all year round with harpoons to meet the quotas: 160 whales per month and per boat. After I stopped, at 22, it was months before the whale smell left my body.’ So why did he choose that profession? ‘Because it was very well-paid! Except that I frittered it all away.’
Pedro Ernesto then sailed under other skies, on merchant ships at first, then in the military, and now handing out museum tickets: the last witness of the whaling years.
Mammals beached on the dock
The museum is on the actual site where the cetaceans were processed. When the flotilla’s ships came back to port with harpooned whales attached to their sides, more than a thousand people would spring into action. The catch was winched up to the slipway, flensed and processed. Such was the destiny of blue whales that whalers called Alfaguara and the sperm whales, in pestilential odours of blood and ambergris. The visit is fascinating. The access ramps are in the same place they were then, with concave docks where the whales were hoisted at the end of their journey. Photos taken during the whaling station’s heyday, 1953-55, show enormous mammals beached on the quays, nearly as big as the warehouses themselves, their bloated carcasses floating in the bay, inert masses conquered by man, and the armada of little hands busy cutting them up. This butchery continued until 1967, when the whaling moratorium was signed.
Divers and pelicans
Today, Quintay sports the colours of a touristic caleta (small port) of the Pacific. The road dives in hairpin bends towards the ocean and reveals a sandy beach and a few colourful houses. Hake (la merluza) and conger fishing keep around sixty people busy. Luis Sepulveda, weather-beaten seaman’s face, has noticed that lately the catches are not nearly as full. ‘It’s the fault of industrial fishing. It doesn’t leave anything for small-scale fisherman,’ he says, a tad fatalistic. But it’s not so bad for business; so many diving clubs have settled in Quintay that the fishermen’s brightly coloured boats now hold more compressed air cylinders and diving flippers than fish. A visibly beneficial second activity.
Seated in his wooden stall facing the ocean, Lorenzo, maintains that Quintay and fishing still enjoy a strong union. He is one of the village’s three fish scalers. Now and again, as he throws leftover bits of hake to the starving pelicans who beg with studied stoicism from the nearly rocks, he sees a whale in the bay. Now free, after decades of being hunted.
There are no direct flights from the UK. You can either fly direct from Paris or Madrid, or change planes in the US (New York, Miami, Dallas...) or Brazil (Saõ Paulo) from around £800 return.
Quintay is 135 kilometres west of Santiago.
Car hire: Econorent, at the Santiago airport and in the city (Manquehue 600, Las Condes) has good rates. www.econorent.cl
Ballenera de Quintay
Visits daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adult entry fee: 500 pesos.
A quick bite: Buceo Quintay, Camino Costanera n°5 (on the docks). 00 56 93 58 73 82. Empanadas and pastries to enjoy on the terrace overlooking the ocean.