A Whale’s Tail: The Whales of Guerrero Research Project

By: Barbara Erickson.

This season, an amazing group of citizen scientists and naturalists returned to Zihuatanejo, Barra de Potosi, and Troncones to study the migration of humpback whales. Katherina Audley, project founder, says that “season three” promises to be the best yet. “We have five young marine mammal scientists, who will live in the Barra de Potosí village, and five visiting scientists and educators. We plan to log many miles and hours in the study of humpbacks and dolphins and giving classes to introduce marine science in local schools,” she says.

There are seventy-five miles of coastal waters along the state of Guerrero that is part of the Northeastern Pacific humpback whale migration route. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that at least two thousand individual whales travel south along this route each year. The Whales of Guerrero Research Project aims to discover how many humpbacks actually use or transit this area during their migration. Last winter during their ten-week study, the scientists counted two hundred forty two individual whales (of which thirty nine were calves) and took photos of sixty-three flukes.

From: VallartaSource.com

From: VallartaSource.com

That brings us to the whale’s tail. Humpbacks and other marine mammals are identified by the unique marks and patterns of coloration on their tails. So when researches are able to snap a good photo, it allows whale scientists everywhere to compare catalogs and locate known whales during their far ranging travels.

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Every humpback whale in the world has a fluke, or tail, with a shape and pattern as distinct as a human fingerprint. The project includes cataloging the whales for counting and tracking purposes.

This winter at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial Conference, the Whales of Guerrero Research Project reported that thirteen of “our” whales had previously been seen in Central America and fifteen in other Mexican waters. At this point, the whales of Guerrero have been matched with 91 fluke shots taken between British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California all the way down to Panama. This research project is filling in a large and previously unexplored gap in humpback whale migration data. It may also prove important to the future of the protected status of humpback whales as more is discovered about their migration, breeding and preferred calving grounds.
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Permission to publish granted by Whales of Guerrero Research Project.

The Whales of Guerrero Research Project is not just all about humpbacks. People and dolphins make it into the mix as well. This year’s project includes a 100-hour land-based field boat/marine mammal interaction study at Playa las Gatas lighthouse, weekly marine science education programs in local schools, interactions with potential whale/dolphin tour guides, training for boat operators and interactions on a daily basis with local folk where ever they find the scientists and researchers at work.

To find out more, go to:  http://www.whalesinmexico.com/ where you can sign up for updates or follow the project on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/whalesinmexico.

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