The Case of the Missing Whales

Terra Hanks and Arturo Mellín, searched for six hours every day of the season to try and find humpback whales, which in 2016, did not show up in our region for the first time in memory. Photographer: Patrick Weishampel/Blankeye Studio

In 2016, following the directives of the village, I resolved to strengthen our education programs and begin connecting with communities in the extended area. Barra de Potosí is not an isolated place. The bay in front of the village is used by fishermen and recreationists from the twin cities of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo to the north and the city of Petatlan to the south. The lagoon is fished by ten fishing co-ops from many surrounding villages. We would need to reach the citizens of these places and foster an awareness and enthusiasm for nature as a resource to care for and protect in and for its own sake, if we were going to succeed. Happily, in 2016, Terra Hanks, a field coordinator with modern-day superhero stores of energy and skills, came on board to keep the data and educational and outreach programs on track. Andrea came back to lead our education programs along with two interns from Spain. With this team of scientist/educator/kid magnets we were able to expand even as we remained up to our eyeballs with activities.

By 2016, the village realized we were not going away, asked more of us and brought us more deeply into the fold. The kids were lined up in front of the library door waiting for their Wednesday workshop on week one. Women had been working away all summer to create marine-mammal-themed handicrafts to sell to the tourists who would join us for our annual Oceanic Society expedition. The list of fishermen who wanted to attend our guide-training programs was growing.

Kids lined up at library in Barra de Potosí ready for a workshop. Photographer: Katherina Audley

In 2016, something strange happened on the whale front: they didn’t show up. While 2015 had been a big mother/calf year, with up to 35 percent of our groups documented being mother/calf pairs, in 2016, we couldn’t find any whales at all. When we listened with our hydrophone for singing male whales, it was silent. It was an El Niño year and the water was several degrees warmer than it had been over the past two years. I had the best crew yet, and had even added a land-based field station – a lighthouse overlooking the busy bay of Zihuatanejo to collect baseline information on boat/whale interactions – but there were just no humpback whales out there.

Dane McDermott and Andrea García Chavez search in vain for whales on the horizon. Photographer: Terra Hanks

We traveled far out to where the continental shelf dropped off and the water changed colors. Nothing. We worked our growing network of fishermen and foreign winter residents who spend their winters in their beach houses looking out to sea. Reports were extremely sparse. With no humpback whales to focus on, we found all sorts of interesting new (to us) species, including beaked whales and spinner dolphins, and got enough shots of rough-toothed dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and pantropical dolphin fins to start catalogs for each species in the region.

Claudía Auladell Quintana recording data on a spinner dolphin, part of a group of thousands we observed in the deep blue waters far out to sea. Photographer: Pablo Chevallard

We got into other taxa, documented a massive die-off of sea turtles that could have been caused by a toxic algae in the water, the sudden presence of 12 shrimp boats in the bay, or both. We documented eagle rays, manta rays, devil rays and sting rays.

We documented a sea turtle die-off during the year of the missing whales. The die-off coincided with a large number of shrimp boats fishing in the bay, but the radio and newspapers attributed the die-off to an algal bloom. We never resolved the mystery.

This experience taught me two things: it reinforced the need for long-term monitoring, so we could know what these whales’ migration patterns really were, and it taught me that whale-watching in and of itself might not be a viable stand-alone option for tourism.

At our safe whale watch workshop, the newly trained fishermen guides agreed, and we resolved to do more extensive training and studies on the dolphins, rays, turtles and birds in the region in the future, as they seemed to be consistently present.

Iyari Janethzy Espinoza Rodríguez teaches local fishermen how to gauge distance between their boat and a whale during a safe whale watch workshop in Zihuatanejo. Photographer: Pablo Chevallard

I redoubled my commitment to making sure whale research could continue in Guerrero without me, so if I were some day unable to return, someone would be out on the water documenting the whales.

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 National Geographic Conservation grants in 2015 and 2017. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at: http://www.whalesinmexico.com

 

Wildlife

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 National Geographic Conservation grants in 2015 and 2017. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at: http://www.whalesinmexico.com