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The Case of the Missing Whale and Other Stories

By Katherina Audley

I’m writing to you from sunny Barra de Potosi, where we are in week 7 of our most ambitious and interesting season yet with 3 weeks to go before we all fall into our hammocks for a very long nap.

First of all, the question of the season is: WHERE ARE THE WHALES? This year we have seen about 110 whales total, compared to about 300 this time in 2015. And only eight of them have been calves. It has been 10 days since we heard male whales singing—we usually hear singing at least every other day. Thanks to two years of network building, we know that we are not alone. Our colleagues along the entire coast of Central America, Mexico, the Western U.S., British Columbia and Hawaii are also missing their humpback whales this winter.

Which leads us to the million dollar question of the year: WHAT IS GOING ON? Well, probably it’s related to El Niño, which has heated up our local ocean by several degrees this year and redirected fish, birds, rays, and marine mammals to all sorts of unexpected places. If the whales didn’t get enough to eat in the north before migrating down to fast for four months, maybe they're still up there looking for grub.

Also, I’m pretty sure we had a baby boom last year. More than 35% of our 2015 whale sightings were mother/calf or mother/calf/escort groups. If our population is growing at the estimated 7% per year, we’d expect more like 14% mother/calf or mother/calf/escort groups. So the new moms and their calves might be sticking around up north to find food and get fat rather than making a 4,000 mile trip south for a warm, salty winter diet of nothing coupled with a rigorous, breach-filled daily exercise program. Cycles! We are learning about cycles!

And the silent males? Well, if there’re no females around, why should they come? Why should they sing?

Of course, as a rookie scientist who is three years into a research project in uncharted territory, all of this is pure supposition. That said, how neat that we have two solid years of data under our belt already for comparison! Woohoo! We're totally science-ing!

So here’s the lemonade:

1) Once a week all season we’ve gone much farther off shore to the deep water in search of the missing humpbacks. We didn't find much in the way of humpbacks, BUT, we have found three new (to us) species of marine mammals! Cuvier’s beaked whales, short beaked common dolphins and spinner dolphins! Two days ago, we saw over 700 spinner dolphins (the party animal of the marine mammal world) in a conga line that went as far as the eye could see. The ones we focused on were having a ball jumping on a solitary humpback whale’s head.

Here are some pictures of spinner dolphins partying:

Spinner dolphins! © Whales of Guerrero Research Project

2) We are 86 hours into our 100-hour boat/marine mammal interaction study from our new land-based field station at the lighthouse looking over Zihuatanejo Bay. The lighthouse has yielded far more data and sightings than I imagined it would! By our sixth week, we counted about 50 individual whales from up there and three calves. So, for half the total hours spent and none of the expensive gas, we counted 50% of our whales this season from the lighthouse. The downside is we can’t get flukes of these whales to ID them and when they are that far away, we have a harder time figuring out what kind of group they are. The best part is being able to get clear, objective data on how whales change their behavior when boats go near them. This will help us a lot in figuring out how to focus our educational outreach efforts for regional boaters over the next few years.

3) Speaking of outreach and education, we are knocking it out of the park this year. Our superstar teacher from 2015, Andrea García Chavez, came back this year and set up programs in 12 schools in Zihuatanejo. Our interns, Pablo Chevallard and Claudia Auladell Quintana, are also AMAZING teachers and total kid magnets. So we’ve been teaching 3-4 classes of 30 kids per class in Zihuatanejo every week this winter and also have taught in Barra de Potosi and la Mahajua. We are doing workshops in the library every Wednesday and offering English classes to kids and adults in the village twice a week as well. Denise King came down from the Exploratorium, collected tiny invisible things and projected them onto the kindergarten wall a couple of times. Now the kids come running up to me to ask when the next plankton night is. I mean, COME ON!!!

© Whales of Guerrero Research Project

4) And then there was the safe whale watching workshop in January. 27 fishermen came, paid 200 pesos per person to miss two days of high season work and attended our rigorous responsible whale watch training program. We had great teachers come down from Puerto Vallarta to lead the course, the Navy donated their salon for the course, the municipality donated coffee. Watching the local guys who I have grown to care about so much break into little groups and do a strength/weakness/risk/opportunity assessment about making whale watching an official activity here was about the best thing I have ever seen.

Safe whale watching workshop. © Whales of Guerrero Research Project

5) And this brings us to the general shift in conservation that seems to be on the brink of happening here. There’s something good in the air this year. Tourism is up. Our project has been going for 3 years now and the locals are into it. The kids are turning into nature nuts. People are working well together this year. One of the most challenging things about this conservation work is that the heart of it is ineffable. I could break out every ingredient that seems to be contributing to this shift and share it with you, but that would be like giving you the individual ingredients in a chocolate chip cookie to taste. Instead, I’m giving you a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. YUM. YAY! It’s WORKING, guys!!!

Even the whales are clapping! © Whales of Guerrero Research Project

So now what?

If you’re local and want to see us or buy one of our super cool t-shirts, temporary tattoos, stickers or water bottles, find us at the Ecotianguis in Zihuatanejo on Saturday, March 5, swing by LOOT in Playa la Ropa to buy some whale merch or come to the village tianguis in Barra de Potosi on March 16 between 10 AM - 2 PM to check out the wonderful artesanias of Barra de Potosi's artists and get the full scoop on our season’s results! We would love to see you. Follow us on Facebook for details about these things.

And what’s next for us?
  1. Finish season 3 strong! Last field study day is March 15. Field season ends March 18.
  2. Go to the Mexican Marine Mammal Society conference in La Paz May 1-5 to present our first three years of discoveries and begin build a fantastic team of scientists and interns for 2017.
  3. Take a good look at the data for this year and the last two, contribute what we have to the mystery of the missing whales and the bigger picture of the north eastern pacific humpback whale population. Also, organize 50,000+ pictures.
  4. Bring seven local leaders from Barra de Potosi and Zihuatanejo to Baja to see first hand what marine protected areas, well managed whale watch communities and community driven catch share programs look like in Cabo Pulmo, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Punta Abreojos.
  5. Find funding to run our education and conservation work year round and do more dolphin surveys during the off season. We need marine biology teachers and healthy ocean ambassadors here year round holding the space and having conversations about the benefits of caring for the marine environment if we are going to succeed in our goals of bringing the local ocean back to health. Two of our interns (Andrea and Claudia) are up for this work. And I’d love to be able to spend more time here doing this work, too.

So that’s what’s next! I’ll be working on grants and looking for funding opportunities all year, and of course, am always hugely grateful for your tax-deductible donations to help us keep this project moving forward. Want to help us keep the project alive and kicking through 2016? Donate here!

All in all, despite the relative lack of whales, it’s been the best year yet by far, thanks to our wonderful team, Arturo Mellín, Terra Hanks, Andrea García Chavez, Claudia Auladell Quintana and Pablo Chevallard, who throw their enormous talents, skills and energy into field, education and conservation work with so much fun and joy. At the end of the day, none of this would be possible without your support and for all you do to help us continue, and so THANK YOU. This is the best and most satisfying thing I have ever done and I am grateful every day for the opportunity to dedicate myself to helping whales, the ocean and this sweet sublime little spot in Mexico thrive. Long may it continue!


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.


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