Gray Whale Field Course with Sea Kayak Adventures
The Eastern Pacific gray whales mark one of the greatest conservation success stories after their phenomenal recovery from several hundred animals left after whaling in the early 1900s to a current population of over 20,000 animals. Every year, gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom, migrating from their summer feeding grounds in the arctic waters of the Bering Sea to the breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.
One of these breeding lagoons, Magdalena Bay, was the setting for a pilot project run by Odyssea in collaboration with ROW Sea Kayak Adventures from 29 Feb to 9 Mar 2016. The aim of the project was twofold: Odyssea researcher Anna Schleimer was introducing her two interns to the main research techniques used to study marine mammals, while also assessing the potential of organising regular internships in Magdalena Bay. The location could not have been any better: tenting on the sand dunes surrounding the shallow lagoons, we could easily spot gray whale cows and calves from shore while drinking our early morning coffee. Once described as “devil fish” for the way they attacked whalers, gray whales in the lagoons are now known as the “friendly whales” as some animals readily approach whale watching boats and seem to enjoy a good scratch from the ecstatic tourists.
Equipped with cameras and GPS, the team hopped onto small fishing boats, locally known as pangas, to start their daily surveys. Every gray whale has a unique pigmentation pattern, which lends itself to the identification of individuals, just like human fingerprints! By taking pictures of these unique patterns on the flanks of the whales, a technique known as photo-identification, researchers can keep track on the total number of animals visiting the lagoons for example. Over the course of our stay we identified 13 separate cow and calf pairs. Needless to say that for an untrained eye all whales look the same, even for the two interns Gaynell and Zoe. But within days, they memorised distinct marks or scars for every individual and could identify previously encountered animals with ease. Throughout the week, we had interesting discussions about conservation, code of conduct, whale watching, and how Odyssea could get involved in the future.
By the end of the field course, most animals had left the lagoon to start their migration north to their feeding grounds in the Arctic. Some friendly gray whales approached also our boat, a very curious behaviour where the cow pushes the calf to the boat. During land-surveys, the full extent of the whale watching activity became evident; at peak times 13 pangas loaded with cheerful tourists followed a single cow and calf pair. While there is a code of conduct in place to prevent such overcrowding, the regulations are poorly enforced in Magdalena Bay and the panga captains believe that only a client that gets to pet a whale is a happy client willing to give a good tip. The issue was discussed with the local guides, who agreed that the reinforcement of the code of conduct needs improving. Odyssea will follow up on the development of this topic.
When the team returned to civilisation after 9 days at whale camp as amateur astronomers, bird-watchers, and coyote-track readers, they realised how much they had learnt and all agreed that they had exceeded their goals for the trip.
Anna Schleimer, vice-president of Odyssea