This year was a smashing success! We were able to spend 28 days on the water and surveyed approximately 1400 miles (2200 km) mostly around the Islas Secas, but also near the Islas Paridas, Ladrones, and Contreras, all within the Gulf of Chiriquí.
We had 204 sightings of humpback whale groups which included a total of 455 whales and 91 calves. (In comparison, 2012 was our previous best year and we sighted a total of 277 whales that year). We photographically identified whales on 144 occasions; however the number of individuals identified will be lower since we repeatedly saw some of the same whales. We expect to have around 100 individuals identified once all of the photographs have been processed.
We were also thrilled to sight a Bryde’s whale near the Islas Contreras in addition to the usual sightings of many spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. False killer whales were also sighted in our study area.
I'm afraid my blog this year may have given the impression that being a whale scientist is all about watching whales leap out of the water and taking pretty pictures in a beautiful tropical setting. Well, now that the field work is over and the equipment has been cleaned and put away the real fun begins! We will spend many months processing literally thousands of photographs, entering data, and making maps and tables representing all the data collected. The field work becomes a distant memory as we toil in front of a computer screen. Luckily, looking at the pictures always brings us back to the lovely days we spent in the field. Here are some of our favorite photos from this year that we will look at over and over to remind us of a GREAT field season!
Many thanks to the Moore Charitable Foundation, The Islas Secas, and private donors for making this year happen!
Bity is a a presumed female that has been sighted since 2004. We got a skin biopsy a couple of days ago, now we'll find out if is actually a female and its relationship to other dolphins in the bay. Last July 2013, the Boca's community decided to change her name to Zip
Bity es presuntamente una hembra y la hemos visto desde el 2004. Hace un par de dias obtuvimos una biopsia de 'ella' y ahora podremos confirmar si efectivamente es una hembra y su relacion con otros delfines en el Archipelago. En Julio pasado, estuvimos en el parque donde muchos de ustedes votaron por cambiar el nombre de Bity a Zip.
One of my favorite types of humpback whale groups to see in the breeding area are the competitive groups (also called surface active groups, or rowdy groups). Typically these groups have one female, and the rest are males who are competing to mate with the female. This year we have seen MANY competitive groups, usually at least one every day. Most have been around 6-8 whales, but we have also had some larger groups, the largest was just a few days ago with 15 whales!
The whales get very aggressive with each other, and often you see blood on their
bodies. Although very rare, there have been reported cases of whales dying
during these aggressive encounters.
These sightings always have lots of action, and the whales surface more often than other group types, making them easier to follow.
We are in our last days of field work. It will be hard to leave as the whales are still plentiful and we are collecting lots of good data. Look for our final few posts in the next week.
One of the primary reasons humpback whales are migrating to the Gulf of Chiriqui here in Panama is to mate and give birth. We get to see a lot of moms and babies (also called cow-calf pairs) during our surveys, and we never get tired of seeing them. Even though the calves are already 12-15 feet when they are born, they seem very small next to mom. Here are some of our favorite photos from this year.
The field season is over for some of our interns. Here is Kata's last post. Thank you Kata for your blog posts and hard work!
It’s really hard to believe that the field season is already over for me. This was my first time doing field research and I completely fell in love with everything - being on the boat, seeing whales and jumping rays and dolphins and everything in between, and working with great biologists in beautiful places. We spent our last few days surveying the Islas Secas, Paridas, Ladrones, and Contreras, which was a much larger area than we have been able to reach in weeks past. The marine life and the weather were both cooperative and we were able to see a few new places. Kristin even took us snorkeling! I had never gone
before and I have to say catching a glimpse of the dynamic ecosystem at work is absolutely incredible. The whales seemed to know we were leaving - we saw at least one breaching whale every day this week, heard singing under the boat, and had our very first Bryde’s whale sighting this season! It has been a pleasure and a privilege working with Panacetacea this year. Thank you for everything! I hope I’ll be back again someday!
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.