A Whale of a Project Launches This Year to Study Humpback Whales and Support Safe, Informed Whale Watching Practices

By Katherina Audley.

January 2014 marks the official kickoff of the Whales of Guerrero Research Project.  During the northern winter, many Humpbacks play off the coast of the Ixtapa Zihuatanejo area. They are part of a large stock of whales that travel between Northern California, Oregon and Washington states coming south each winter.

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 Humpback whales migrate from Canada, south along the coast of Mexico in Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta.  Copyright (c) 2013 Oscar Frey – www.OceanFriendly.com

While we have known of the whales’ presence in our region for years, no formal studies of the whales in this southern region of the Eastern North Pacific have ever taken place.

The Whales of Guerrero Research Project has three objectives:

  1. Survey the endangered humpback whales, which winter in our local waters;
  2. Support the development of locally-owned and operated, informed, responsible whale watch guide services;
  3. Raise awareness locally and internationally about the unique natural wonders of our region, particularly in the marine environment.

Every humpback whale in the world has a fluke, or tail, with a shape and pattern as distinct as a human fingerprint.  We are going to photograph individual fluke prints, catalog them and share them with scientists on the West Coast between Canada and Oaxaca (the state south of Guerrero) who are studying the same whales, so that we can get a better sense of where whales travel and how often they move between different grounds.

The project is designed, pending funding, to be a five-year study with the hope that by the end of that time-frame we will have established an approximate count of how many individual humpback whales visit the region every year out of the estimated 2,500 humpback whales in this group.  We hope to get a clear understanding of which areas are preferred by the whales for calving, resting, singing and courting.

The pilot field study will be carried out in Barra de Potosi in the Bay of Petatlán, about 25 minutes south of Zihuatanejo, from January 13 – March 21, 2014.  This area region is host to eight distinct ecosystems and the local waters are part of the winter mating grounds for the California/Mexico population of humpback whales.  We will also begin the groundwork to extend the study north in 2015 to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo and Troncones in an attempt locate possibly larger populations.  Eventually, we hope to have Mexican whale scientists working together with local fishermen and tour guides to collect field data along the entire coast of the State of Guerrero.

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Mexico has specific laws in place (SEMARNAT-NOM 131) regarding whale-watching activities from private vessels to minimize stress on the whales, to protect them from unintentional injury by boaters and to ensure that the mothers and calves are never separated from each other. At this time, there is minimal awareness of safe whale watch laws or generally accepted worldwide best practices among boat operators and fishermen who take visitors whale watching.

Thanks to the generous donations of members of the beach communities of Playa Blanca and Troncones, along with private supporters from around the world, we are able to get started with this exciting work.  Thanks to the support and partnership of Oceanic Society, our non-profit fiscal sponsor, all donations are tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowable by law. We will be hosting a series of local benefits between January and March 2014 to continue our work in upcoming years and also accept donations through our website.

Project supporters are invited to join us for special events with our visiting scientists.  You can come out on the water with us and spend the day as a citizen scientist collecting fluke prints and possibly recording video of the whales underwater and listening to them sing.  To find out when we are having a special event near you, keep up with our news and get involved, please visit our website, http://www.whalesinmexico.com.

Viva las ballenas!

Author Bio: When Katherina Audley is not launching whale-themed conservation projects, she serves as webmaster for the Society for Marine Mammalogy in addition to working as a freelance travel writer, sculptor, communications expert and professional Viking for individuals and organizations around the world.  She has been visiting the Zihuatanejo area for over 15 years.

Related Article:

Humpback Whales – These “Snow Birds” Visit Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Every Year

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