This past week has been an exciting one as the field season begins to draw to a close for me (Megan) and Kata. We've been able to survey some different sets of islands lately
and it has been nothing but exciting. The other day we traveled to the Contreras, a wild set of islands located near Coiba. Kristin had told us early in the day that we might see some different species than what we were used to seeing, and we were not disappointed! On the ride out to the islands we encountered three different pods of Spotted dolphins and quickly saw out first Humpback of the day once we were within the Contreras. After capturing a shot of flukes, this whale surprised us by doing a full breach and several lunges directly in front of the boat! The biggest surprise of the day, however, came when we spotted 2 whales that were definitely not Humpbacks. Although we still cannot be 100% sure (there are several species of whales that look very similar), we believe these whales were Bryde's whales based on behavior and some physical characteristics. After surveying for most of the morning, we took a break by snorkeling around one of the islands. A moray eel, crown of thorns starfish, and a sea turtle were just some of the amazing creatures we saw while exploring the reef.
The other day we had a very typical mother calf pair sighting. Mama and baby were swimming right next to each other for several minutes at a time, then diving down together where they remained underwater for another several minutes, coming up for air again nearby. It took a few surface series before we realized that the mom had a rope wrapped around her tail and was trailing a buoy. This could have a big impact on her ability to dive, and to properly care for her calf.
Entanglement in fishing lines, nets, and other debris floating freely in the ocean is a real
problem for whales and other marine species. Recently a dead humpback whale calf was spotted floating in the Gulf of Panama, with a net entangled around its tail stock.
Read more about marine debris here:
Part of our objective here in Panama is to listen for humpback whale song.
Humpback whales are known for their long complex songs, which are a series of
themes and phrases that are repeated. Only the males sing, and they only sing on
the breeding areas indicating it is part of their mating behavior. Sadly, our
hydrophone died a few days ago, but the backup is on the way soon!
Meanwhile, we are using our intrepid intern Megan as a human hydrophone. Today
we saw a whale that was exhibiting classic singer behavior…a single whale staying
down for long periods of time (up to 20 minutes) and surfacing in the same
general area. Megan offered to slip into the water to see if she could hear
singing. With her help we learned that this whale was NOT a singer, and she got
the chance to cool off! Thank you Megan for putting in the extra effort in the
name of science!
Captain Pulo instructs Conor on how to use the camera
Today, we set out on an adventure to track and identify the mighty leviathan, on a small but speedy craft, armed only with two Nikon cameras, Pringles, and a broken hydrophone. It was only my second day interning with Panacetacea in the beautiful Islas Secas, but the salty veterans of our enterprise have been enjoying a productive season all summer. Kristin - El Capitan - has been at it for years. The tides and the rain kept us on shore until late in the morning, but we found plenty of action once we got out to sea. Sure enough I was scared out of my wits, when in our first hour out the great humpback breached - lunging its tremendous mass some thirty feet clear above the water’s surface. No one else quivered. Inspired by their confidence, I raised the camera and waited. When the whale breached a second time, I captured every magical moment. We stalked the humpbacks for the rest of the day. I was hooked. I took some 500 pictures, some of which might Kristin said, just be of value. We came back to rest and enjoy some delicious Panamanian rice and potato salad before turning in. Another long day ahead... And so the adventure continues...
Hello all, this is Ashley Sitar updating you from Bocas del Toro. I’m now 8 weeks into my study and things are going well. I’ve gathered lots of data and already seeing that there may be big differences in the behavior of dolphins with and without tour boats. I’ve collected questionnaires from tourists, local residents and stakeholders, and one thing has become clear, there is a huge amount of local support for dolphin and marine conservation.
As for our community of Bocas dolphins, I have seen the group with dolphin Bity who seem to be the babysitter and helper to new dolphin mom, and her baby (Bocas newest addition) in Dolphin Bay. They were first spotted in Loma Partida last month, which is hypothesized to have been this group's nursery ground for the baby. But now they have been spotted twice foraging in Dolphin Bay where the occurrence of whale watching boats presence is much higher. The baby is definitely learning how to become more independent but when boats are around mom and baby stick close together side by side.
Kata here again! We trekked all the way back to David today to meet two new interns
- Conor and Megan, and to do some boat maintenance. On our way we got to travel
through the "estero" (estuary) and admire wildlife we don’t normally get to see. The highlight of our trip was passing through a bay just west of Boca Chica where we saw a group of around twenty bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) feeding! The dolphins were extremely curious and friendly. One dolphin rode along with us under our bow for a long time. We believed the dolphin to be an older calf. These individuals characteristically will stay close to an adult, presumably the mother, and are smaller than full grown adults. The dolphin is also easily identifiable; you can see two distinct dark spots under the left
eye. We use markings like this to monitor individuals and note when we encounter them repeatedly. We plan to be back out on the water tomorrow to do more work with our whales. Let’s hope that the weather stays nice for us!
Hello everyone! This is Kata, one of Panacetacea’s interns this year. We just had two
of our busiest days yet! Yesterday we saw over thirty whales out on the water in just five hours of surveying. This is one of the highest numbers ever seen in one day in the history of this project! The abundance of whales in the area was exciting but also very overwhelming. We all had a difficult time keeping track of the action! Luckily we were able to get nine unique photo IDs, a skin sample from an active whale, and some interesting vocalizations from nearby whales before we had to go in because of bad weather. Today, sadly, we said goodbye to our colleague José Julio in Boca Chica after six days of working together. On our way back to the Secas we came across the largest competitive group we have ever seen in the area! (A competitive group is when males compete to mate with a female). We won’t be able to give an exact number until we carefully go over the video footage and photos from our encounter, but a
preliminary estimate puts the group somewhere between nine and twelve individuals. In addition to witnessing this we were also able to collect a skin sample from a breaching whale and listen to the vocalizations of the competitive group using our hydrophone. It has been a tremendously successful field season so far. We can only hope that it gets better from here!
Today we were surveying along and Kata, our intern, noted that it had been an hour since we had seen a whale (we have been seeing them so often, this seemed like a long time). No less than 30 seconds later an adult breached (leapt out of the water) a few hundred meters ahead of our bow! Seeing a full grown adult leap out of the water is always an impressive sight. Soon we saw that it was a mom and her calf, and we spent an hour watching the two breach, slap their pectoral fins on the water, and roll around. As scientists, we try not to anthropomorphize, but it’s hard not to think that these two weren’t having lots of fun!
Today was our second day of field work. The first few days are always challenging and
I feel a little disoriented trying to remember where I put everything and how things work all while getting used to bobbing around in a small boat. This year we have a new GPS, camera, and hydrophone recorder to complicate matters. The whales have been helping us ease into field work by being fantastic so far! In two days we have already seen competitive behavior (when males fight to mate with a female), a mother with her small calf, an adult breaching in the distance, a singer directly beneath our boat, and tail lobbing! Here is a
picture of the whale we saw this afternoon, lobbing its tail repeatedly.