by Katarina Rolf
Ahoy dedicated readers! We are hard at work out in the lovely Gulfo de Chiriquí, capturing photo IDs and making sure that the sun 7° North of the equator doesn’t burn us to a crisp. Today was quite the exciting day for Panacetacea. After passing by a mom/calf pair first thing in the morning, Kristin decided that we should put the hydrophone in the water and try to capture the sounds of the cetaceans swimming around us. As per usual, we heard some singing males. However, today seemed to be a bit more active in the dolphin community than we were used to. Our headphones were filled with intricate whistles and clicks that were almost as loud as the singing. Unusual? Not really. Atypical? Sure. We thought nothing of it when we saw what we thought were large dolphin looking dorsal fins rise out of the water, maybe Tursiops? Kristin immediately and astutely noticed that something didn’t seem quite right… the blows were much larger than usual. As the supposed bottlenose dolphins approached the boat, she climbed to the bow and took a peek down to the waters below.
“IT’S PSEUDORCA IT’S PSEUDORCA IT DOESN’T HAVE A BEAK!”
Betzi and I were puzzled. We heard “It’s some orcas!”, which didn’t make sense. Eventually, we all figured out that what we were seeing were false killer whales, a 15-foot blackfish found in mostly open ocean tropical and semitropical waters. Seeing them in the waters of Chiriqui was a first for all of us. We followed them around for what felt like just five minutes but was really almost half an hour. Today, we wanted to share some of the GoPro footage that we captured with you. Listen for their whistles and clicks, and hopefully you can experience a piece of the excitement that we had today!
A couple of days later, we saw them again! This time with a competitive group! It looked as if the pseudorcas might have been attempting to play with the humpbacks, and the humpbacks didn't seem too interested. A pod of between 50 and 70 pseudorcas surrounded our little Chiripanga as we watched the spectacle unfold before us. We observed the group interacting for approximately 20 minutes before they headed their separate ways. Today, we wanted to share some of the GoPro footage that we captured from both days with you. Listen for their whistles and clicks, and hopefully you can experience a piece of the excitement that we had!
We have had quite a few encounters this year with some friendly moms and calves. Humpback whale calves are just like any young animals, often curious and playful. Here is a video we shot a few days ago with a GoPro camera showing a mom and her calf as they come look at our boat. Look at their eyes as they swim by!
by Austin Dziki
Fieldwork rarely goes exactly as planned, we are no exception to this. Our boat recently developed a leak in the fuel tank and we had to send it in to port immediately for repairs. All is well though because this gave us a great opportunity to catch up on our data processing. At this point in our field season we have identified 34 whales (on track to hit our target of 100) of which only 8 are whales that match our catalog records.
I also took this opportunity to build a makeshift buoy that we can use to collect acoustic data. Betzi and myself found a large piece of Styrofoam with a cement bottom floating out in the ocean and decided to turn the unfortunate truth of ocean pollution into an opportunity for science! The giant piece of garbage also makes an excellent buoy for our conditions because it will disguise the hydrophone as trash and hopefully prevent any passing boats from getting a little to curious and taking it.
Don’t worry though, we strike a fine balance between work and play out on the island. Betzi, Ursula, and Kata had just arrived on the island today and since the boat was not back yet we had to make the most of the day. We kayaked around the island to a nice secluded beach, found a cold freshwater stream that poured out over the cliffs right onto the beach, and even did a bit of snorkeling. Don’t think that we missed an opportunity out on the water to listen with our hydrophones though! Unfortunately, all we could hear was the surf against the rocks and the crackling of shrimp.
Luckily for us, Ursula, in addition to being a humpback whale biologist, happens to be a world-class salsa instructor! So of course, after lunch we had our very own salsa lessons. You wouldn’t think that six little steps would be so tricky. We learned (I attempted to learn) four different salsa moves and then string them together. I think I make a better intern…
by Austin Dziki
Yesterday, we got to see something very different from the mellow whales we had been encountering for the past few days. We had been following a whale that Kristin had timed at staying down between 4-6 minutes between surfacing series, which is normal, but each time the whale came up again it was hundreds of meters away. This whale must have really been swimming hard! We were catching up to the whale, getting ready to catch a nice fluke I.D. and move on when we saw another blow not too far from the first. This was curious because it seemed like they were independently heading in the same direction. Then, out of nowhere, a third large adult whale surfaced with the other two! I didn’t think such a large creature would have been able to sneak up on us like that. At this point the three whale’s trajectories had all lined up. We looked ahead and quickly saw the blows of yet another group ahead. The whales we were with began to charge their heads up out of the water and blowing powerfully as they raced towards the group. They even started trumpeting, a sound you might expect to be used as an effect in Jurassic Park. They reached the other group and the race had ended but the energy did not die down. The whales were still breaching the surface, overlapping with each other while thrashing their flukes about. One whale raised its entire pectoral fin out of the water, waved it around in the air, and then slammed it down. I couldn't believe how much control the whale had over its massive pectoral fin, something the size of a boats sail. Since the first whale that brought us to this scene the energy had been building. We believe this was a competitive group in which males are competing to mate with a female, so things understandably get a little tumultuous.
We had been following them for over two hours away from the island and out into deep stormy waters, which forced us to head back in. We did not get to see how this event concluded but it was very interesting to see the beginnings of it unfold.
by Austin Dziki
This is my first season with Panacetacea working as a field intern for the 2015 Humpback Survey in the Gulf of Chiriqui. We have made it to Isla Secas, our home base for the research project. Our goal is to complete 25 boat days where we venture out through the archipelagos in search of Humpbacks in their breeding grounds. The Gulf of Chiriqui is a unique breeding ground due to the fact that whales from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere migrate to these waters. Going out in the boat and capturing photo I.D.'s of the whale's fluke is how we identify individual whales, they act like a fingerprint for each whale. Through collaboration with photo I.D. records from Humpback feeding grounds, we are able to determine where the whales we see here have come from. This information has important implications in understanding Humpback behavior and helps protect and conserve the species as a whole.
This season is off to a strong start; on our way out to the island, not even a full boat day, we saw bottlenose and spotted dolphins as well as 12 Humpbacks! I don't think I have seen a Humpback whale since I was 14 in Bar Harbor Maine, but it is always a special experience. Our first encounter was uniquely special, however. We found a mom and her newborn calf as well as three large male escorts. The mother was simultaneously supporting the calf, who needed help swimming, while keeping it safe from the three males. All of the whales stayed close to the surface for about 45 minutes allowing us to get great photos and even some video of the mother and calf swimming together. This felt different than my last whale watch, like we were observing the whale's natural behavior in a tense moment for a mother and her newborn. It was an exciting start to my work with Panacetacea and I am very excited for a productive field season.