An Old Friend Returns to Whale Camp

BLOG 2 – 7 Sept 2014

Hueso, an old friend, is back at Península Valdés!

This morning, the whale community in front of the house in Golfo San José was unusual, and unforgettable too. After three days of almost non-stop rain and wind, the sun shone again in Península Valdés. The dirt road has big mudpools that are drying under the sun and the dry west wind.

Since 1995, we have monitored the frequency of kelp gull attacks on southern right whale mothers and calves in this calving ground. Three research assistants are doing observations in Golfo Nuevo, while I am alone for a couple days collecting data from the research station in Golfo San José. I began my observations around 9:30 this morning. Every whale I spotted was not a mother-calf pair: rolling groups of courting and mating adults were noisy and busy, two playful juvenile whales were even busier, and two other solitary juveniles looked exhausted and did nothing but sleep right under the surface.

It took me about one hour to find a mother-calf pair that I could follow with the telescope to start recording data. They were coming from behind the west cliff right toward the house, so I had a front view of both whales. It looked like they were swimming into my telescope. After the mother’s first blow, I noticed right away that she had some white marks on her back, and thought, “What a cute whale.” A minute later, she surfaced to blow again. This time, I saw her marks in more detail, and my heart bumped in my chest. “Hueso is here!” I shouted out loud to myself. Suddenly I got all anxious and nervous because I was “almost” sure that this whale was Hueso, and wanted to confirm this. Good luck was on my side, as she decided to swim slowly at the surface right in front of the house, and…

Hueso in 1999

Hueso in 1999

YES! I took photos and videos of this mother and her calf, and confirmed that she is my “old young” friend Hueso! I ran and shouted like crazy in the porch and went to the beach to greet her, and then climbed up the cliff (after slipping in the mud!) to take more photos. I first saw Hueso with her mother in 1999, when she was a newborn calf. At the time, I was a PhD student doing a project on the behavior and social development of juvenile southern right whales, so I identified and observed calves that later became the juvenile subjects for my study. I named this whale “Hueso” (Spanish for “Bone”) because she has a bone-shaped white mark on her back. She has two more white marks next to it, and her white belly patch goes up her left flank, so she is easy to spot.

When she was a calf, Hueso was very boisterous, always breaching and playing around her mom. A year later, Hueso was weaned and became an independent and very sociable juvenile whale who appeared to enjoy the company of other young whales such as Mochita (the star of our Right Whale Adoption Program – you can adopt her here!) and Rombita, who were born in 1999 too. To my surprise, I saw Hueso again in 2006 with her first calf, becoming a young mother at age 7. This calf was very energetic too! In 2009, I saw Hueso from the plane in Golfo Nuevo during our aerial survey, and photographed her and her second calf… breaching! And today, I saw Hueso at age 15 with her third known calf, who by the end of my observations was… breaching! It looks like the hyper gene runs in her family.

Hueso in 2009

Hueso in 2009

So, I have known Hueso for fifteen years now, since she was born in the same bays where I saw her this morning with her third known calf. It is hard to describe how I feel when I encounter a whale that I have known since she was born. It is definitely exhilarating! Hueso is almost the same age as my niece Mora, who is fourteen. All these years, I have seen Hueso and Mora grow to become a young whale mom and a young, lovely teenage girl.

This makes me think of the cycles of life on Earth, on land and at sea. Millions of southern right whales were born before Hueso was born. They swam in these same bays, and they had their calves who in turn became adults and had their own calves, and the cycle repeated over and over again, millions of times, until one time the one whale that was born had a bone-shaped white mark on her back. And one among millions of human beings was there, watching, observing, taking notes and naming her Hueso. Hueso is now swimming in the bay in front of this isolated house on the shores of Patagonia, and I am wiriting and watching that same bay where she is swimming. And for a blink in the history of the planet, that whale and this human being have shared 15 years of common history. Fifteen years that are nothing in the never-ending cycle of life, but that mean much to me, thanks to a charming whale named Hueso.

Cordially,

Mariano, from Golfo San José in Península Valdés, ArgentinaMariano after finding Hueso in 2014b