National Geographic Sea Bird, Gulf of California–Since life began on Earth there has not been any animal bigger than one that lives with us today: the blue whale.
To see this colossus of the ocean right in front of you, expelling a geyser 30 feet into the air as it comes up for breath, is humbling — not only because of the animal’s awesome power and size, but also because we came very close to wiping it from the face of the planet at the height of the whaling industry in the 19th Century.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration was holding its grant-making meeting in the dining room of the National Geographic Sea Bird last week when Lindblad Expeditions President Sven-Olof Lindblad, who was personally showing us around the Gulf of California, interrupted proceedings to report that a blue whale was swimming ahead of the ship. The session adjourned at once and a dozen scientists rushed to the forward deck to take a look — quite likely the first time in the 100-year history of the venerable Committee for Research and Exploration that a whale had sent members running from a meeting.
On its week-long field inspection through the Gulf of California, the CRE came across only that one blue whale — but then it was a little early in the season to find them in that part of the sea, according to the expert accompanying the delegation, Diane Gendron.
A project director with Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR-IPN), Gendron has been monitoring and studying blue whales in the Gulf of California for a quarter of a century. Individuals are monitored passively from a safe distance with photographs of their unique markings as well as the genetic, diet, and health information teased out of their copious poop. (Researchers follow the whales to skim the giant mammals’ feces from the ocean surface before the nutritious discharge can be scarfed up by birds and fish — a food chain in reverse.) Hundreds of blue whales have been identified and profiled in the Gulf in this way. The data help conservation management of the species in a critically important feeding and calving ground and on its long migratory routes along the length of the coast of North America.
Diane Gendron’s field work has been of assistance in the making of documentaries of blue whales by National Geographic and the BBC. Her work is much appreciated by the research community.
“I am here to share with the National Geographic committee the results of our research and some of our concerns about blue whales,” she told me as we sailed through the Sea of Cortez one gusty morning, nary a whale of any species in sight. “Following one individual for the past six years or so showed we did not know much about these whales before. For example, blue whales are known to be solitary, unless they have a calf with them. But we found they do talk to each other, especially among females in an area. From their feces we also found out that they don’t eat only krill; they are adaptable, able to change from krill-feeders to eating a much wider range of food than we thought before.”
It had been a privilege to study individuals for years, to become part of their lives, Gendron added. “It gives us a much better idea of who these animals are, how often they come back, and how important this area is for survival of their calves. For these blue whales, the first year of life, zero to 12 months, takes place here in the Gulf of California.”
Is the whale-watcher optimistic that we can save these enigmatic mammals, keeping them with us for many years to come, I wondered.
“I’m very proud of the Mexican government for funding research that could minimize the impact of human activity on the survival of the whales,” Gendron said. Those activities included ocean noise and wildlife-watching tourism.
“It’s a trilateral cooperation–Mexico, the United States, and Canada–and in this nursing area at least we are doing our best to provide the best habitat for them in their first year of life. It’s important to continue with research and monitoring of these animals because the water is warming and there might not be enough food for them. Monitoring them here is also an indicator of what’s going on in the sea. Whales are giving us important information about the sea, and the sea is in turn important to their survival.”
- Committee for Research and Exploration (includes grant application process)
- Blue Whales article in National Geographic (March 2009)
- Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot (National Geographic Voices, 2015)
- The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011)
- World Heritage Description: Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California
- Wanna Be a Marine Biologist? Here’s How
- Experience the Gulf of California on the National Geographic Sea Bird: National Geographic Expeditions Baja Cruise Itineraries
- Watch the excitement when this BBC journalist sees a blue whale while he is doing a live interview:
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.