Changing Planet

2017: Think Global, Act Local

In 2017, I got to hire local people from the village, not only to run the boat, spot whales, and manage the hydrophone, but also to use the DSLR camera and to enter, correct, and analyze data. Having been at it for four years now, Arturo Mellín, my principle captain, was a total pro at whale-watch navigation and data collection. We were now a Mexican-majority team. Andrea García Chavez had graduated from college and was living in Zihuatanejo teaching high school biology and spending every weekend on the boat with us.

Project Education Director Andrea García Chavez with a giant whale painting created by her high school students in Zihuatanejo.

I found that the advantages of having a team of Mexicans (from the community and early career Mexican biologists from elsewhere in Mexico) run the project outweighed the disadvantages. The disadvantage was that we had to provide the locals with more extensive training and also quality-control their work more, whereas the interns we had worked with in the past arrived with more field experience and needed less coaching on data collection and entry. The advantage was that because the locals had such a big stake in the project—they understood that it really was for them and for México—they tried harder, and they were more careful and generous about everything involved with the project, from gear care to data entry to stretching out the weekly U.S. $25 food budget to make it last nine days, just so the project could have more operation funds.

This kind of dedication, of course, melted me. My new interns’ generosity and team spirit motivated me to do everything I could for them, from getting their radios fixed to finding them scientific work during the off-season to getting them grants to attend international conferences. It was some of the most rewarding work I did this year.

Raul Ramírez playing a whale-themed game in the classroom. Photographer: Florine Martineau

In 2017, the project began to walk on its own. Also, after investing consistent time and energy in the place and bringing in ecotourism, educational programs, and training workshops, an interesting thing began to happen. The village started showing up at my door to talk about fishing. We had never talked about fishing. Or not fishing. We had always talked about how cool nature is, and how if you take care of nature, nature takes care of you. But the fishery was continuing to decline, and the tourism co-op had outgrown the fishing co-op. Fishermen were unable to make a living from the sea. This was an unexpected development and not an easy problem to solve. I expect conversations about this ongoing challenge to continue during the upcoming year.

Arturo Mellín, fisherman turned whale expert, teaches local high school students about marine wildlife. Photographer: Katherina Audley
Guest scientist and dolphin expert, Eric Angel Ramos, teaching local fishermen best boat practices around dolphins during a workshop. Photographer:Andrea Jacqueline Garcia Chavez

The whales that skipped their winter visits in 2016 apparently decided to join the 2017 whales, and we had a banner year. During ten weeks on the water, we more than doubled our fluke catalog, and four years in, we were beginning to resight whales we had first seen in 2014 for the second and third time. Many of the returning whales had an uncanny sense of time, arriving in the bay within days of the date they had been spotted in previous years.

A humpback whale calf breaching next to its finslapping mother. Photographer: Terra Marcella Hoon Hanks

This was very exciting for the community. Our season kicks off with a village event that includes news of resightings. From then on, the village kids and fishermen crane their necks to see these whales anytime blows are spotted off the coast. It was also a celebratory time for those on the lookout for their “adopted whales.” Members who have been actively involved in the project (by calling in with reports, donating meals, or running us out to the islands to rescue and replace hydrophones dropped on the sea bed, for example) have been given a whale to symbolically name and adopt. The honor of being given a ceremonially adopted whale is now considered a grand one. Villagers proudly frame and display their adoption certificates in their homes and businesses and frequently enquire after their whales.

We are about to begin our fifth season. I’m still up in the States, hammering out last-minute funding-request proposals and making sure the gear works. My phone is blowing up with whale sightings on WhatsApp from our network. Our community is cheering us along as we post sightings and information on the project’s Facebook page. We are all aching to get out on the water. I arrive on Tuesday, January 2. I expect to see a line of kids at the door in front of the library on Wednesday afternoon, ready for their first whale-themed workshop of the season.

This year, in addition to finishing our whale survey and running educational and training programs, we will be working with the village to share their story with the world. Together, we will document the project, including a fishermen’s learning exchange in Baja. Scientists, teachers, and documentarians really do have the best jobs. They get to learn all the time and share their stories and discoveries with the world. I’m handing the recording tools over to the village now. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Learning how to keep the right distance from whales during our annual safe whale watch workshop
The village kids painting a sign to put up on the beach about the dangers ATVs present to turtle egg nests. Photographer: Raul Ramírez
The finished kid-made turtle protection sign installed by villagers on the beach. Photographer: Raul Ramírez
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
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

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