2014, the first year of our humpback whale research effort in Southwest Pacific México, was a big success. We sent the first 24 fluke (whale tail) shots to our colleagues at Cascadia Research Collective, the holders of a 20,000-strong fluke catalog, and they were able to match ours to pictures of the same whale flukes taken in Central America, elsewhere in Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, and Mexico! This meant that the whales in our region were part of two Distinct Population Segments (DPSs): the endangered Central American DPS, of which there are estimated to be only 411 individuals, and the threatened California/Oregon/Washington group, of which are estimated to be about 5,000 individuals.
Our next steps would be to find out whether these whales were calving and nursing in our region or whether it is mainly a migration corridor for them. While whales never stop moving entirely, they are loyal to the places where they give birth, which is something they learn from their mothers. Females come back to the same place to give birth every two to three years, and not only do males return to the same breeding and calving grounds each year, they even seem to stick to the same approximate week or so when they show up. This meant that even if our quiet, pristine bay were to become a superhighway of cruise ships and a labyrinth of drift nets, these endangered whales would keep coming back.
The good news was that the community wanted to be good hosts and marine stewards. They came to our training programs, they hopped aboard our boat to hear the whales sing, and the kids were now singing whale songs and waiting excitedly for their adopted whales to return.
In 2015, I received my first National Geographic grant to strengthen our education, training, and research efforts. I went back to the village, this time with a guiding question: “How can I help you?”
But when I asked the village how I could help, they told me to focus on the kids. They said things like, “We’re beyond help. We’re old. It is hard to change us as our minds are set and we’ll die soon. You need to focus on the kids. Tell them everything. Teach them how to be with nature and what they can do.” (These messages often came from people in their thirties or forties.)
I didn’t plan to offer or develop education programs when I started this project. It was enough to run a 300-hour whale survey. It was more than enough to also offer safe whale-watch training programs and to promote the area by writing stories about it and bringing in ecotourism through Oceanic Society expeditions. Expanding our weekly workshops to run science outreach programs in the schools and bring in guest educators to teach hands-on inquiry-based learning methods was more than I could do alone.
Happily, in 2015, a team of capable early-career scientists joined the project, so the data collection no longer fell to me alone. In addition, one of the new team members, a young woman from Mexico City named Andrea García Chavez, proved to be an ace whale spotter and an even more talented teacher. She discovered her gift and passion for teaching while doing the work. Dozens of kids fell in love with whales and Andrea that winter. She became the Pied Piper of the whales—you could often spot her wandering through the village spouting whale facts with a line of adoring children in her wake.
In 2015 I learned that listening and planning in accordance with the needs of the community, and having a team that cared about connecting with the village as much as they cared about connecting with the whales, were the most important things we could do if we wanted to give the vulnerable whales in this region a shot at long-term survival. The health of the marine environment and the health of the community were going to need equal and mutual support.
The directive from Barra de Potosí to focus on the kids and fully collaborate with their community gave me clear marching orders for 2016.
Katherina Audley has participated in whale research projects around the world since 1997. Since 2013, she has led a cooperative research, ecotourism and environmental education program in Barra de Potosí that reaches 100,000 people each year.
Katherina received a National Geographic Conservation Trust grant in 2015. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at: http://www.whalesinmexico.com