Below is a link to our colleague Ester Quintan's blog post on her experience with us in Panama this year. Thanks Ester for a great summary!
While the primary objective of this research project is humpback whales, we enjoy observing the many other species we encounter during our surveys. The other day was a particularly slow whale day, so we spent some time with a mixed flock of birds feeding on small fish. At times the water beneath the flock seemed to be boiling as birds from above and larger fish from below preyed upon the smaller fish. These waters are not just vital for humpback whales, but for many other species as well!
Every year we take student interns with us on our research project. We love introducing the world of marine mammal field work to enthusiastic students. This is Amara's summary of her time with us, thank you Amara for all your hard work!
by Amara Chittenden
My time at the Islas Secas is coming to an end and I cannot believe how fast the past few weeks have gone by. I was not sure what to expect with my first field research experience, and I could not be happier with all the things I have learned. I now understand the effort that goes into using photo IDs of flukes and comparing each of them to a large database (of over 600 whales!) from previous seasons. Every time that we put the hydrophone into the water was exciting, and I think we all agree that humpback whale songs should be at the top of the music charts. When we stumbled upon competitive groups of 8 or 9 whales, watching them throw their huge bodies at each other for a female companion, we could spend hours stitching together a picture of who is who and what is playing out. Watching this team of researchers that have dedicated themselves to putting in long hours every day to get this data is the coolest thing to get to be a part of. We are all exhausted at the end of the night, but we wake up every morning ready to go out. Because when you see a mom and calf milling about, or a whale breaching in the distance, or a singer composing a song beneath the boat, you get even more excited about the work that goes on. I am so lucky to have been able to see these whales up close, and to be at these beautiful islands where we are so supported and welcomed. And while I will definitely miss the massive quantities of Pringles that we have snacked on in the field, I will miss the people here the most. I cannot wait to hear about the results and outcomes from the project (especially the sound recorder!), but in the mean time I’ll be heading back to school in Vermont. Thank you Kristin and Panacetacea for everything and the internship of a lifetime!
The other day we were observing a mom and calf pair as they slowly swam near our boat. The calf came over to take a look at us which the curious young calves often do. Not long after, the mom raised her tail flukes and I immediately recognized her as a whale from our catalog. After looking through all of our previously identified whales, we now know that this is the third year we’ve seen her with a young calf! The first time we saw her was in 2013. It's great to be able to identify the same whales year after year and to be able to track things like calving rates. We are so happy that this mom is doing well and look forward to seeing her in years to come!
Part of Panacetacea's mission is to educate locals about the marine life in Panamanian waters. We believe the more people know about their marine resources the more they will be interested in protecting them. Whales and dolphins are always a crowd pleaser, and we enjoy giving talks about marine mammals and the importance of conservation. This year we spoke with a group of locals at the Islas Secas after they had just had the opportunity to see whales during their boat trip to the island. One parent told me that after seeing the whales and then listening to our talk, her little girl said "Mama, the whales are my friends." We love being able to share our knowledge and enthusiasm for marine mammals and hope the next generation will continue conservation efforts!
A few days ago we were able to deploy our second bottom mounted hydrophone in the Gulf of Chiriqui. Last year we deployed one that recorded for two months, but this one will be able to record for up to 7 months. The hydrophone is programmed to record for 15 minutes every hour, and will be able to detect any male humpback whales that are singing in the area. Because whales from different populations sing different songs, these recordings will allow us to determine when humpback whales from the southern hemisphere leave, and when whales from the northern hemisphere arrive. This would be very difficult to do with boat observations only, so we are grateful to have this tool to help us monitor this population.
by Max Moreau
Yesterday was an exciting day for the Panacetacea research group at the Islas Secas. Although for fluke id’s it was one of the slower days with only four, the day started off with the placement of the long term hydrophone. The hydrophone this year is going to stay down for approximately 7 months, with the hope of capturing the full song of both the southern and northern populations of humpbacks. As the day went on we had some very exciting sightings, around mid-day there was a young calf that decided he wanted to practice fully breaching. He gave us a wonderful show for about a half hour. As day was getting late our captain incredibly saw a breach from about 3 miles out, drove us out to where he thought it was, we sat for about thirty seconds and the whales breached again not even 50 feet away. Not only had he seen them from impossibly far away he brought us spot on. There was a mother, calf and an escort. We were able to id the escort because he was actually doing slightly deeper dives to sing! He was following the the mother and calf and singing for them the whole way.
Yesterday we spent some time observing a group of males competing for primary position to mate with a female. We commonly see these kinds of groups (called "competitive groups") on the breeding area. They are always exciting to watch as there is usually lots of action as the males charge through the water and jostle for position in hot pursuit of the female. At one point, we saw the female raise her tail out of the water and hold it up for about 45 seconds. It's possible that she was not interested in mating and trying to get her genitals out of the water and away from the males. It gave us a great opportunity to get an identification photograph of the underside of her tail flukes!
We are all geared up and ready to go to continue our monitoring study of humpback whales in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama. This study has been ongoing since 2002, and we are thrilled to be back for our 15th year! Since we started this work we have identified 668 individual whales using their tail flukes, some of whom we've seen for multiple years. We are excited to see who we will see again this year, and add some new identifications to our catalog.
Yesterday we headed to the Islas Secas, which we use as our base of operations, with a boat full of research equipment, personal gear, and food (the most important). Because we were so laden with equipment we headed straight to the islands, which is a three hour trip from town in our boat. Of course, we always stop for whales and this transit day did not disappoint! We had over 15 whales in just a few hours and managed to get 11 individual whales identified. Moms and calves, singers singing, and breaching whales all greeted us on our first day on the water. We hope this means we will have a great field season! Please check back to see how we're doing!