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The Whales of Guerrero Research Project's Question of the Year

By Katherina Audley

When I wrote last February, we were in the heart of our season. The work days were long and sleep was a precious commodity. WELL, let me tell you, it's a whole new world from the vantage point of 8 hours of sleep and the best season ever under our belts! Woohoo! 3 years down, 2 to go!

Not that we've been exactly napping around here ... There is a mountain of data to analyze! 55,000 pictures to organize! Presentations to be made at marine science conferences! And, of course, funding to be sought in order to continue our work.

All this data analysis and conference presenting and planning has forced me to take a good look at what we've accomplished and to identify what has and hasn't worked. In case you're new here, or in case you'd like to take a little trip down memory lane with me, here's what has happened over the past 3 years+:

  1. 1998: I went to Barra de Potosi for the first time and stayed with my uncle in a half-built house on the beach and fell in love with the place. I began making extended annual trips there and connecting with the community, mostly through fishing trips.
  2. 2011: Joseph and I got married in Barra de Potosi. 80 guests from around the world came for the wedding. The community was struggling from the H1N1 virus scare and reports of cartel violence in the news. I noticed (in a purely anecdotal fashion, while diving and fishing) that the fishery was nowhere near as rich with life as it used to be. I also noticed that 80 friends spending their tourist dollars in the village made a big difference to the community!
  3. 2012-2013: I wrote travel love stories about the area for magazines and newspapers, which helped boost tourism, but didn't address the issue of the environment and the collapse of the fishery.
  4. 2013: The Whales of Guerrero Research Project was born. I traveled again to Barra de Potosi and started talking to the community, finding out what happened to the environment and working with the locals to figure out how to help. I also started fundraising and planning for our first season.
  5. 2014: Year One’s Question: Does this project want to exist? Community’s answer: YES. People wanted the project to be in the village. YOU PEOPLE (+ $20,000 on my credit card) provided the seed money to get us on the water five days/week and we began to train local fishermen to collect scientific data on marine mammals and how be informed, responsible tour guides. Kids came to the library for weekly whale-themed classes, fishermen joined us on the boat to study and collect 300 hours of data on humpback whales and dolphins.
  6. 2015: Year Two’s Question: How can we help you? Community's answer: Focus on the kids! Thanks to your 2nd year donations, my credit card, and a couple of small grants, I was able to hire 3 interns. We strengthened our education programs and deepened our connections with the community. All of us lived with host families in Barra de Potosi. We taught at the local primaria and library, brought in guest scientists and teachers to inspire local people to fall in love with their natural offerings, and documented a mini baby-boom of humpback whales.
  7. 2016: Year Three’s Question: Who are the local opinion makers and how can I empower and inspire them to lead the community to protect the environment in a lasting way? This year, the community's answer was humbling and encouraging. The community leaders and opinion makers came to ME! During the season many of the fishermen who attended our two-day safe whale watch workshop dropped by my house to discuss ideas they had on how everyone could work together to improve ecotourism and protect the ocean and the whales. They told me that they are seeing the potential to recreate their environment and earnestly started looking for solutions . . . YES!

The community wants to keep studying the whales and dolphins with us and is requesting more workshops, educational programs and events. They also want us to keep teaching the kids and to keep bringing tourists. They have started to ask about other communities who have faced similar problems, and how they handled it. And the community emphasizes that women have to be involved, too. I'm over the moon about this! It's really working guys.

In spring and summer of 2015, we were awarded two grants—one from DFWS / SEMARNAT and one from National Geographic—to expand our educational programs and cover some of last winter’s field season expenses. These grants, unfortunately, are not perennial so I'm still working like mad to find funding for next season, and that is why I am still working for free. It's true ... none of the grants I've received have paid me a dime and I am still donating over $20,000 of my own money to the project every year to continue. But thanks to those grants I was able to hire amazing interns in 2016 and apply a substantial amount of educational and scientific energy to Barra de Potosi. We were also able to expand to the schools and communities in Zihuatanejo and la Mahajua. We taught over 1,000 kids at 12 schools last winter, offered dozens of community outreach events and collected over 400 hours of data in 3 months! We also launched a land-based field station at the lighthouse in Playa las Gatas which allowed us to begin to understand how boat traffic affects whale and dolphin behavior and where to focus our educational outreach efforts regarding safe boat practices.

There was a noticeable shift in how members of the local and extended regional community are looking at their environment, talking about it, and taking ownership of it.

For example, in mid-April, 100 fishermen rode their boats out of Zihuatanejo with white flags on their bows and surrounded and documented the commercial tuna fishing boats to protest their presence and continuous, unmonitored overfishing of the region. This protest generated a fair amount of media coverage and the tuna boats left.

Local fishermen ride out to protest commercial fishing in the region in April 2016. © Katherina Audley

A disproportionately high number of kids in our village want to be biologists when they grow up now and when we project videos of marine wildlife onto the wall of the village at night, the events are well attended and you hear kids shouting out the LATIN names of the animals they are seeing and describing their behaviors.

Sebastian (right) was so excited about his chance to go up to the lighthouse to search for whales with Terra that he slept fully clothed with his backpack and shoes on the night before so he'd be ready for the big day.

Stories like these are building, and I think we are approaching a tipping point in our local community toward an ethos of marine stewardship and conservation.

So that brings us up to the end of the season. I'll send a newsletter in a couple of weeks with an outline of our plans for next season including some really exciting new connections we have developed in Baja. As big as our progress was in year 3, I'm really excited about our plans and the future for the next 2 seasons!

Thanks so much for following along, for your support and for being a part of it!

Author

Katherina Audley is the founder and director of the Whales of Guerrero Project, an effort to study and protect humpback whales and support community development on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Fifteen years of marine mammal studies have brought her up close to whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds in Alaska,Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, and New Zealand. Katherina has worked in Bahía de Potosí, Mexico for the past 16 years.