One of our main objectives for this project is to collect photo-identifications of the tail flukes of humpback whales. Each whale has unique markings on the undersides of their flukes, and these can be used to recognize individuals. We share our photo-ids with researchers in other areas to determine which whales we have both seen, which gives us some information about their migration routes. Whales photographed off Panama between July and October have also been seen in Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Antarctica. You can also estimate the population size based on how many whales you have seen in previous years and how many whales are new that year. Here is an example of an id photo.
In order to photograph the underside of the tail, you need to be behind the whale as it dives, which is not always easy! To make it even more difficult, whales do not always raise their tails when they dive. Many times the whales we are following never raise their tails.
Sometimes we have to get creative with our fluke ids. This whale was on its back, raising its tail over and over and slapping it down on the water.
It was showing us the underside of the tail, but upside down!
We inverted the photo, and now it is usable as a photo-id.
A few days ago one of our engines started overheating. After troubleshooting a few things, we realized something had happened to the impeller and it was no longer pumping cooling water to the engine. Luckily, we have two engines and we limped home using one of them at 7 knots (we usually travel between 15-20 knots). It is not easy to get parts here in Panama. Even the sparkplugs we need I have to bring from the states. As luck would have it, a mechanic happened to be coming to the islands where we are staying and was able to bring the parts we needed and helped us fix the engine. Thank you Isla Secas and Luigi for helping to get us back on our way!
The artistically talented Betzi Perez drew this cartoon based on what we saw a few days ago while watching a competitive group of whales. There were two boobies (one blue footed and one brown) sitting on a log very near all the activity. We were amazed that the birds did not fly away despite these giant animals crashing nearby. Nice work Betzi!
Today we saw a very active calf. It breached (jumped completely out of the water) in front of our boat repeatedly, pec slapped (slapped its long pectoral fins on the water) and tail slapped (slapped its tail on the water). Humpback whales are known for these behaviors, and it’s not unusual to see the small calves doing them over and over. They learn these behaviors from their mother, and they seem to be having fun while they are practicing!
You never know when a whale is going to breach, suddenly you see their massive bodies emerge from the water (even calves seem huge, they are born at around 12 feet in length!). It’s hard to be ready with the camera, and lots of times you end up with images like this.
But when a whale breaches over and over you have a better chance of getting a picture. Luckily this whale gave us lots of opportunities to get some good photos!
Today we had to refuel. We carry enough fuel to last us for 5-7 days, depending on how far we go each day. The closest place we can buy gas is about an hour away from where we are staying. Luckily we usually see whales along the way, and today was no different. Here is a picture of Betzi photographing a whale straight ahead of us, you can see the blow hanging in the air above the whale. This was a pair of adults, and they were very near some beautiful rocky outcroppings.
We cannot simply pull up to a fuel dock and get gas. The boat needs to be pulled out of the water on a trailer and towed to the gas pump. Here is a picture of our friend Levi pulling the boat out of the water with a tractor. Nothing is straightforward and easy when you are working in remote areas!
Today we saw something disturbing…an unbelievable amount of plastic in the ocean. It’s the rainy season in Panama, and the rivers are swollen with rain and flushing everything alongside out into the ocean. Here are pictures of a line of natural debris, branches and other organic detritus. Interspersed amongst all the organic matter is an incredible amount of plastic (the pictures do not do it justice). We saw many many bottles, shoes, a laundry basket, all kinds of tubs and containers; we even saw the plastic leg of a doll. This line of debris stretched on as far as we could see. We saw two humpback whales swimming amongst all this plastic. Although the humpback whales we are seeing off Panama are not here to feed, and may not necessarily be directly affected by this garbage while they are here, many species will be affected, and it is an indicator of how we humans treat the oceans as our garbage dump. To learn more about plastic in the ocean go to:
Today more than made up for our “off” day yesterday. We had our first sighting of humpback whales 6 minutes after we left the dock! The whales today were much more cooperative, surfacing at regular intervals and not travelling too quickly which makes it easier for us to follow them.
Today we surveyed near the Contreras Islands. These are beautiful uninhabited islands located within Coiba National Marine Park. We saw a large group of spotted dolphins nearby.
On the way home we had our first competitive group (also known as a surface active, or rowdy group) of the year. These are groups that typically have one female, and the rest are males competing for the opportunity to mate with the female. It was a fantastic sighting! There is always lots of activity and interesting behaviors. We took over 1000 photos in under two hours.
It’s always great to follow a bad day with a good one!
Whale research, like anything else, has its good days and bad days. Today did NOT feel like a good day. We were lucky that we saw whales…we saw 7 groups and a total of 14 whales, but not a single group was cooperating with our research needs! The first few groups of the morning were staying down for a long time and were very hard to follow. Finally we saw a group of at least four in the distance. This was the group we had been waiting for! Four whales are generally hard to lose. However, we never saw them again! We guessed that they separated since we then saw several single animals in the area. And all of these were staying down for very long periods of time and surfacing far away from where we had last seen them, which makes it very difficult to get near them and collect data. They were impossible! When the wind picked up in the early afternoon and made it too difficult to work, we were happy to call it a day and hope for a better one tomorrow!
Here is a picture of what most of our day was like, staring at water waiting for whales to surface!
We finally left civilization for a few weeks of field work! To get to the ocean, we spent an hour going through the "estero" (estuary) which is a fantastic place to bird watch. We saw several species of heron, egrets, and frigate birds. Here is a picture of a fishing camp we passed along the way.
Here is our captain, "Pulo", ready to work!
We will be based out of the Islas Secas, an archipelago in the Gulf of Chiriqui. We were thrilled when a mother humpback whale and her calf welcomed us as we approached the islands. They swam right beneath our boat in about 30 feet of crystal clear water. It was such a great way to start our field work!
Oftentimes when we are getting ready to go into the field an unexpected problem pops up. Over the years I have become used to our start date being delayed. Sometimes it has to do with the boat or the outboard engines. Mechanics often don't show up when they say they will, and parts sometimes have to be ordered and can take days to get here. Sometimes it is weather related, and rain or wind or a large swell makes it difficult to get out on the water. This time everything seemed to be going smoothly, the boat is ready, yesterday we bought enough groceries to last for weeks, the weather forecast is fair, and we were all set to leave this morning. Unfortunately the captain called at the last minute and said he has a cold and isn't feeling well enough to work today. It is "winter" here in Panama, the rainy season, which is also cold and flu season. So we are delayed until he is feeling better. I hate being on shore when I'm all ready to go and I know there are whales out there, but it's important that our whole team is healthy and ready to work hard! Let's hope our captain feels better soon!