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Southern Right Whale Program

A day at work with the whales in Patagonia

By | Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

At the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina we have a new boat to study the southern right whales in Patagonia with, and we want to share the good news with you!

We do much research observing the whales from shore, and even from the air, but some studies require that we approach the whales from a boat. To have a safe, reliable boat is essential for the safety of the researchers and to ensure that we can do the job in the best way possible.

With the support we received from each whale adoption and donor in Argentina, and with a generous donation from Ocean Alliance and from Vicky Rowntree, we bought a new boat to do our scientific research in Península Valdés. Its name is El Gris (“the grey one”, for obvious reasons!) and it’s a beautiful rigid bottom inflatable BIM boat in great condition. After some improvements and customization to fit the needs of whale research, and after lots of paperwork to have it properly registered with the Argentine Coast Guard, we launched it on a perfect day – September 21, the first day of Spring in the southern hemisphere!

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El Gris, coupled with the expertise of our captain and whale guide Marcos Ricciardi, proved to be an excellent platform to collect right whale biopsies that we will use for nutritional and genetic studies. In one day we collected 20 biopsies — an all-time record for a day of work since we began to biopsy these whales in 2003!

To introduce the new boat, we prepared this short video that shows “A day at work with the southern right whales of Península Valdés.

We especially thank all those who adopted a whale through our Right Whale Adoption Program at ICB. Our work to conserve the whales and protect the oceans would not be possible without your help and contributions. THANK YOU!

A record number of southern right whales counted in Península Valdés

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(Translation of an article published in Spanish in the newsletter of our partners in the southern right whale program, Instituto de Conservation de Ballenas.)

On September 9 and 10, in collaboration with Ocean Alliance, ICB undertook the annual aerial photographic survey of southern right whales in Peninsula Valdés. We cataloged 788 whales, the most recorded since we began surveying this population in 1971. The Southern Right Whale Program has been continuously studying and advocating for the conservation of this population of right whales and their habitat in Patagonia for 47 years.

The ICB/Ocean Alliance catalog has images and information about more than 3,200 known individual right whales in Peninsula Valdés. Professor Vicky Rowntree, the program director, explains that “With a good photograph of the head of every whale, we can know who is who in the population study the life history of every individual love the decades.” (Each right whale has a unique  pattern of callosities on its head, and these patterns allow researchers to identify each individual whale.)

“We’re very happy with this year’s results,” says Dr. Mariano Sironi, scientific director of ICB. “We counted 788 whales, including 302 offspring, in Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. The entire coast between Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides is an almost continuous line of animals. Never in my life have I seen so many whales together in one single day.”

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #5: “The whales are laughing!”

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I have spent a lot of time in the field, working in over 20 countries more often than not trying to get close enough to animals (without disturbing them) to collect data, whether it be behavioral, health or physical samples for toxicology etc. Every now and then you have one of these special encounters that resets your perspective, reminds you that we are passengers on space ship earth and not the crew and that the passengers may get what they want, but not always in the way they expected.

We rented a 36 ft boat yesterday, with the idea of being able to spend a full day out on the water, with all of our drones, cameras, controllers, chargers, computers and our dry shipper (a container that has been primed with liquid nitrogen) to preserve our samples.

So 8 of us, consisting of the ICB team — including Marcy Uhart (an Argentine who works for UC Davis) — and the OA team, headed out to sea from the town of Puerto Madryn. Quite quickly we encountered a mother and calf, and we got our first snot sample of the day with Scottie and two photogrammetry samples (mother & calf) with Archie. We then worked for over 45 min to get a Snot Sample from an adolescent whale. It was down when the drone was up and left when we were right and so on and so on. But we were patient and persistent and we eventually got a viable sample. We then moved off about half a mile from the whale to go through some equipment checks and switch batteries etc when one of the crew said a whale was approaching the boat from the stern and it was the adolescent we had just sampled.

To be blunt, the whale swam right up to the boat and we were Snot Bombed (whale version of photo bombing), but in this case it included biological matter from whale lungs – we were repeatedly soaked with snot from a whale that was just feet from the boat, first from the side then from the stern. You may think that I am exaggerating here but there is a a photo below from Archie of the whale Snotting us. In the accompanying photos you can see John and I on the port side of the boat running the drone. Everyone else getting an eyeful. Mariano can be seen holding out a pole that alternated between a Petri dish and his Go Pro, as a result we have our biggest Snot sample yet and video looking down the blow hole during the blow. (I’ll post that video when we get back to the USA.)

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After a 10min photo flight with Archie, I brought him back on board and I took out my own camera. Photos of the day were closeups – so close that you can see the individual cyamids on the whales head.

R whale chin
We need to take pause here and remember that we have spent almost two weeks down here focused on collecting snot, when we see a whale blow and we are not able to get to the whale we are frustrated – we have become a little Snot focused dare I say Snot obsessed and then a whale comes over to our boat and soaks us – be advised that whale breath in small quantities is great. In large quantities it is not that nice, I don’t think that they brush their baleen at night. In the space of 20 min we were all thoroughly Snotted and poor old Carolyn was having a real problem with all of her sterile equipment that was not so sterile any more. Also we could not motor away since the outboard engine was up so the whale would not hit it – so we had to sit it out or maybe Snot it out (sorry).

So why did the whale do this? We don’t know, but the best guess from Mariano is that the adolescent whales are bored and when they see something new just floating in the water they check it out, perhaps thinking that it is a new toy they can play with. After about 20 min when they realize how boring human boats can be they just go on they way and look for something more interesting. If we did not have the remarkable accompanying photos – this story would be hard to believe. It was certainly an amazing experience for the whole team, more than once we were eye to eye with an animal as big as our boat, it refocused all of us as to the importance of learning all that we can about these animals so that we can preserve them for ocean health and diversity and future generations.

As we reflect I guess it goes back to the old saying “be careful for what you wish for” or maybe just maybe… the whales are having a laugh at our expense.

From the VERY snotty skies of Patagonia – that’s how the Snot flies.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #4: “It’s all about the Team”

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Key components of any effective research expedition are flexibility and adaptability. You plan a project, in our case at 43 degrees North with the goal of implementing it at 43 degrees South, and guess what? things don’t always go to plan. We had hoped to do a lot of data collection flying from the shore line, but for some reason the whales this year have decided to spend more time offshore – so the team jumps into a 13 foot 20 yr old zodiac with at 12 yr old two stroke outboard and off we go.

The drones to all intents and purposes are small computers, we also have a variety of transmitters and receivers on the boat (that are also small computers), and then small video displays so that we can have a First Person View of the action from the drone. This means that one good wave over the bow or one piece of equipment dropped onto the floor of the boat (which as much as we bail out is always wet) and the experiment is either over for the day or for the trip. Computers and salt water don’t work together period.

Even so we have been going out two or three miles from our camp every day to find whales. We are encountering 10 to 15 whales a day which is good, but we need to keep moving so we are not sampling the same whales all the time. At least twice the weather was fine when we left camp and then 3 or 4 hours later the winds pick up and we have been beating our way back to camp with equipment in our clothes and in waterproof cases. With all of this equipment onboard in a confined wet space we have been running to strict protocols to make everything work.

A start up flight might go like this:  Everyone in position (yes), Everyone ready to fly (yes) OK – Transmitter on, video & data screens on, calibrate gyros (throttle up and to the left), altitude hold engaged, position hold engaged, boat mode on, check all RC transmitter switches, start cameras on drone (hold as steady as you can so that the camera gyro matches the camera level with the horizon). Take a photo blank to check camera & video systems. Carolyn wipes down the collection arm (one more time) with alcohol and puts on the sterile petri dish. When we say we are ready to fly she takes the top off the petri dish. OK ready to fly, pick up drone and hold it above your head into the wind, remover petri dish cover. All clear (Yes) start engines, throttling up 3,2,1 fly. Start timer, where are the whales?

Find the drone

After a 12 to 20 min flight (depending on which drone we are flying) we fly back to the boat and either John or Mariano hand catch the drone (see photo). Then we hold the drone in place while Carolyn removes the petri dish which she puts into a sterile bag and a cooler.

DCIM100GOPRO
We then look for the next group of whales and head toward them.
Since we are running two different scientific programs, we will often collect a few snot samples with our Yuneec Typhoon drone (Scottie) and then head back into shore and drop Carolyn off to process the samples. Mariano (Scientific Director of our Argentine partner ICB – Instituto Conservación Ballenas) will replace Carolyn and we will head out to do the Photogrammetry program with the WHOI drone Archie. When the weather is good we try to spend as much time on the water as we can.
The tidal range here is over 20 feet so on occasion we have come back to a huge beach in front of the camp – we lug all of our equipment back, return to the dingy and then the inflatable has to be broken down (remove engine, fuel tank etc etc) and then carried/ dragged back to camp.

Big tides
To spend all day in a small boat with 3 other people all the while juggling computers, salt water, drones, cameras & working with whales takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy. We have a great team here from ICB team member Marcos (who coaxes a 12 yr old outboard to life again and again) and always gets us into the best position to fly to the whales & the full shore support team courtesy of ICB. It has been hard work, but we are excited to be troubleshooting new technologies and trying to determine the best ways to make them work for science. How lucky we are to spend time with Right whales, make new friends and work to better understand and conserve the wild world.

Thank you to all of the team in Gloucester for supporting this expedition from our headquarters. I’m off to bed, up at 7:00 am tomorrow to catch the high tide.

And that’s how the Snot flies in Patagonia!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #3: “It’s all about the Snot”

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It’s pretty incredible to be sitting in a small boat about half a mile off the Argentine coast with three friends surrounded by right whales and to be flying a drone.  I have been a RC enthusiast for most of my life, and it was just over 4 years ago that I had the idea to try and bring my hobby and work together.  I had been reading so much about military drones and advances in technology that I felt sure that there was something that could be done with these remarkable machines for the benefit of the wild world and ultimately humanity.

So here we are flying small drones over whales – today I did a total of thirteen flights, each flight lasting around 12 minutes.  I am flying a WHOI drone called Archie to conduct a Photogrammetry study (determine whale size and health through photos – see photo below), and of course flying our Yuneec drones to collect Snot.

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This whole program is a bit of a logistical nightmare. There are so many things to do and check before you get in the boat. We are collecting scientific data, so we need all of the supporting data, latitude and longitude, time, length of flight, height, size of petri dish, animal type, calf, mother etc etc etc).  Flying from a 13 foot inflatable boat, we have to hand launch and recover the drones, so the launcher needs to have on a helmet, safety glasses and gloves. We do not want to contaminate any of the Snot we collect, so our scientist Carolyn from WHOI thoroughly cleans the drone beforehand and wears a mask and gloves.  The launcher also wears a mask so as not to breath or sneeze onto the collection plates.

When we are about 100 to 200 feet from a whale, we stop the boat’s outboard engine and take up flight positions.  I go to the back and sit on the outboard motor, John goes to the front and gets ready to launch the drone, Carolyn is beside him and Marcos keeps an eye on the drone when it is in the air at all times and also drives the boat.  When everyone says that they are ready, I turn on the remote control, John then turns on the drone (keeping it as level as possible so that the camera, gyroscopes and GPS calibrate correctly).  When that is done, John attaches a 2 to 3 foot carbon fibre pole to the bottom of the drone (this pole has a adjustable angle platform at the bottom onto which we put a 6 inch diameter petri dish).

When we see a whale on the surface, Carolyn attaches the petri dish to the platform; she puts one half facing down and the other half facing up.  We are now in sterile conditions, so we take flight as soon as possible.  I fly our Yuneec Typhoon (that we now call Scottie) towards the whale standing up in the dingy, when we are about 50 feet away and I can see the whale in the FPV (first person view) camera screen, I sit down and often put a blanket over my head to keep out the light.  When I reach the whale flying about 25 feet above the water I tilt the camera straight down, when the camera is pointing down we can see our collecting plate (see photo below). I orientate the drone so that the head is straight ahead and I fly up the body towards the head.  When I am above the blow hole with the camera pointing straight down, I drop down to about 12 feet and hover above the blow hole.

Over blow hole

This is when life gets really difficult.  If the wind is blowing the snot can go one way, because of gull harassment some of the whales arch their bodies to keep them underwater (so the seagulls can’t peck their skin) in this case their blows shoot forward, some shoot the blows aft and others straight up one time and then sideways the next time.  Since we have time to stay about the whale, we can sit through a few blows to get the feel for the best place to position the drone.  When you get a blow you know it, thanks to the down looking camera I can see the blow shoot snot straight onto the collection petri dish.

Snot Petri

If it is a robust sample I fly straight back to the boat, if not I try to get a couple more blows on the plate before returning to the boat.  John hand catches Scottie (still wearing a mask) and holds the drone while Carolyn removes and seals up the collection plate, which she puts into a sterile zip lock bag and then into a cooler (in case we collect more snot before going back to camp). Typically our flights are no longer than about 12 minutes, and after collecting snot samples from two individuals we like to go back to shore so Carolyn can process them (more from Carolyn on this later).

In a later post I will talk more about what we have learnt with regards to flying drones over whales and what drones have worked best for us.  We brought down 3 different drones and my favorite is not what I thought it would be. That’s it for now from the Patagonia Team; more soon.

And that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #2

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The weather forecast said no wind today so we got up at 6:00 am this morning and rushed out to whale camp. We have bought some great empanadas the night before and we ate them on the drive out. Alas when we got to whale camp just before 7:00 am the whole area was covered in fog. We could hear whales blowing and snorting very near by but we could not see them. We sent one of our Yuneec drones into the fog in case it was clearer offshore but even though we went out over 1000 ft everything was socked in – we got a very damp drone back. So we serviced and cleaned our equipment (& read manuals) until just after 10:30 am when the fog burnt off.

Fog at Camp

The good news is that we than had some GREAT Snot Bot flights, we did not get Snot, the whales we were working with seemed to be resting and exhaled very slowly – I can say that because we were literally looking down the blowhole – See photo, you can see the snot collector Petri dish. It was great practice to see if we could hold position over a whales blowhole and we are very optimistic and excited for the work ahead.

Later in the day we flew the WHOI drone (Archie) to get some photogrammetry images. We managed to photograph 11 animals, 5 mother calf pairs and one solo whale. I fly watching the video feed from the drone and have a black cloth over my head to keep the sun out. It was pretty exciting today when tracking the whale I saw our small inflatable boat come into the image. The whales seemed curious and came over to check the boat out, you can see that the engine is not running on our dingy nor are we making way – the whales came to us. I am under the back cloth with John Graham, Marcos our ICB team member and Carolyn are also visible in the boat.

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From the Snot Bot Patagonia team – that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #1

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Dear Friends,

We made it to Patagonia with the Snot Bots – thanks to all of you who supported this project.  I am traveling with Carolyn Miller from WHOI and John Graham from Gloucester.  My job will be to pilot SnotBot, Carolyn is dealing with the data and John is keeping everything running and is the back up pilot.  The trip down was pretty brutal with a day flight from Boston to Miami, an overnight flight from Miami to Buenos Aires and then a 5:20 am flight from Buenos Aires to Trelew which necessitated a 3:00 am wake up call.  We are about 42.5 degrees South and 64.3 degrees West.  We are working out of our camp in Argentina where Ocean Alliance has been conducting aerial surveys of Southern right whales since 1971.

We had to get some friends to come to the airport to meet us with their truck because we have a total of 16 bags.  It was fun getting them through customs… The whale camp in Gulfo San Jose is very remote, a small generator (only on when yo need it), no phone no internet and 40 min to a small town with minimal supplies (Piramides).  So we brought about every spare part and tool that we thought we would need (and then some).  After checking into a small apartment in Piramides (no phone, internet or comfy chair).  We went out to whale camp and worked on setting up the drones in the old boat house until about 8:30 pm, we got back to Piramides at 10:00pm and then ate dinner.  A very long day.

Next morning we were up at 7:00 and went back out to camp, alas the temperatures have been in the 50’s with rain and wind speeds up to 20 Knots. Not conducive for flying or collecting Snot or photos.

Patagonia remains one of the most amazing meeting places of land, sea and wildlife.  We have taken on a challenge with the hope of conducting the Snot Bot & Photogrammetry program in 12 days – but providing the weather gives us a break we will make it happen!

We are very grateful for the support that we have been given by the electronic flight company Yuneec – we have two Typhoon drones and one Tornado.  I was flying the Tornado today in 20 knots of wind and while I was feeling a bit unsure the Tornado flew like a dream.  Our snot collection devices are petri dishes on a long pole that hangs beneath the drone.

SnotCollector-scaled

“As I prepare the research drones for their daily mission in the makeshift workshop on the beach, I am lucky to have a spectacular view of the whales and its hard not to be moved by the nurturing and playful behavior of these giant sentinels of the sea”  John Graham

DroneBarn

“While others told me that Patagonia was spectacular its hard to comprehend the beauty and wildlife diversity without seeing it first hand.  Yes we have been fighting the weather, but I am confident that we will soon be very busy, in the meantime I am excited to be here and be a part of this program.”  Carolyn Miller

DroneBarn2

We are all set up here and ready to go.  Tomorrow we will be up at 6:00 am in the hope of catching some calm early morning weather. Keep your fingers crossed.  As soon as we have data and photos we will be posting them.  Watch this space!

 

Dispatch from Patagonia: 2015 Southern Right Whale Survey

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We received the following dispatch from John Atkinson on Friday, September 11.  John has been the primary aerial photographer for our annual survey of Southern Right Whales since 1988, and has participated in numerous expeditions and documentaries worldwide.

Hi all, John Atkinson here, writing to you from Peninsula Valdez in Patagonia, Argentina, We have now finished our 2015 annual aerial survey of the southern Right whales that gather in nearby waters to mate and give birth to their calves. This is an ongoing survey that was started by Dr. Roger Payne back in 1970.

Our survey was a tremendous success. This year we flew with a new pilot, Peter Dominguez, and he deserves a big shout out for getting us up and over the whales and back on the ground safely. Also, thanks to everyone in the offices and all of the volunteers in Gloucester at the Ocean Alliance and at the Institute de Conservacion de las Ballenas in Buenos Aires for all of the advance preparations and organization.

In the photo above is a whale that we photographed, and if you look closely, you can see the baby alongside the mother.

In the photo below is our aerial survey team, which includes, from the left, Dr. Mariano Sironi, myself, our pilot Peter and Marcos Ricciardi. Not included here is our other member of this year’s aerial team, Alejandro Fernandez. Thanks again to everyone for keeping us safe and for loving the whales as much as we do.

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In closing, I want to say that today, September 11th, is Mariano’s birthday so Feliz Cumpleanos (Happy birthday in Spanish) Mariano!!

Scientists Employ Satellite Tags To Solve Whale-Sized Mystery

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For the first time, scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to remotely track southern right whales from their breeding/calving grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds somewhere in the western South Atlantic. This could eventually provide clues to the cause of one of the largest great whale die-off ever recorded.

The international effort for answers includes members from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Aqualie Institute of Brazil, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Cascadia Research Collective, working in cooperation with Fundación Patagonia Natural, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas / Ocean Alliance, the University of California, Davis, the Dirección de Flora y Fauna (Wildlife Service), la Secretaría de Turismo, el Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) of Argentina’s Chubut Province.

The announcement was made as conservationists are holding the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia – a once-in-a-decade global forum on protected areas.

Said Dr. Graham Harris, Director of WCS’s Argentina Program: “A provincial protected area and a key area with a long history of work by WCS, Peninsula Valdés was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June of 2014 due to its importance to protect both terrestrial wildlife and marine species along its waters. As the World Parks Congress in Sydney is underway, it is imperative to highlight the importance of protected areas like Peninsula Valdes to safeguard unique wildlife and habitats.”

satellite tagging southern right whalesOver the past month, the team succeeded in affixing satellite transmitters to five southern right whales, a difficult task conducted during varying weather conditions in Golfo Nuevo, one of the two protected gulfs of Península Valdés and an important breeding ground for the southern right whale.

Vicky Rowntree, director of Ocean Alliance’s Right Whale Program comments: “It’s incredibly exciting to follow the daily movements of individual whales which we usually see only one day a year, at most, when we conduct our annual photo-identification surveys. The tagged whale that traveled southwest for a bit and then retraced its path was fascinating–why did it change its direction, what was it looking for and what did it find? By matching photographs of right whales taken in places far from the Peninsula Valdes, we’ve known for years that some PV mothers calve off Brazil in alternate years and that three PV whales traveled to feed in the krill-rich waters in the western South Atlantic off the island of South Georgia. These snapshots in time have been extremely important in delineating the population’s habitat but satellite tracking is allowing us to follow day-to-day movements and understand they make, the paths they follow and if the tags keep transmitting, hopefully, their feeding destinations. I can’t wait to search for the tagged whales in our PV catalogue of 3,000 individuals that have been photographed at PV over the past 44 years and attach life histories to their journeys.”

Over the past decade, southern right whale calves have died in unprecedented numbers (more than 400 between 2003-2011) for reasons still unclear to scientists. Different hypotheses for this mortality have been considered, including disease, certain types of contaminant, and harassment and wounding by kelp gulls, a frequent occurrence in Península Valdés.

southern right whale callositiesThis new research will help assess where the whales are feeding, namely if there could be any threats to the whales along their migration route or on their feeding grounds and if the research team can conduct additional tagging and studies to determine any issues associated with food or nutritional stress causing calf loss by some mothers.

Said Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina: “This project follows the recommendations made by the International Whaling Commission when it analyzed the recent increase in right whale calf mortality in Península Valdés. It is the result of the cooperation between non-governmental organizations, universities and government agencies. The scientific data resulting from this project will provide a new scale to our understanding of southern right whale behavior. Differences in movement patterns among the tagged individuals will certainly be fascinating.”

The deployed tags will transmit the geographical position and behavioral information of the animals up to Earth-orbiting satellites multiple times a day, allowing researchers to follow whales remotely. The researchers selected calving females and solitary juveniles for satellite tagging in order to glean insights into habitat use and migratory movements for different sex and age groups.

satellite tagging southern right whalesData accumulated thus far reveal unprecedented information for southern right whales: real-time information on long-range movements across marine regions. Two of the five whales have remained in the waters of Golfo Nuevo, while the other three have already left the bay. One of the animals is currently in deep waters of the South Atlantic, one has been spending its time over the continental shelf, and another has moved into deep offshore waters, but has returned to the continental shelf break. Movements from all whales have lead researchers to some areas where the tagged animals are likely feeding, and further discoveries of feeding grounds for this population may be revealed as the team tracks the movements of tagged animals.

Growing up to 55 feet in length and weighing up to 60 tons, the southern right whale is the most abundant species of the world’s three species of right whale. Unlike the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales (both Endangered), southern rights have managed to rebound from centuries of commercial whaling, with populations that have grown by as much as approximately seven percent annually since 1970. Of the estimated total population of southern right whales found throughout the entire Southern Hemisphere, around one third use the protected bays of Península Valdés as a breeding and calving habitat between the months of June and December.

Source: http://www.wcs.org/press/press-releases/scientists-working-on-whale-sized-mystery.aspx

 

Watch the Trailer for “Jane and Payne”

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Last fall Ocean Alliance President and founder Roger Payne traveled to the whale camp in Argentina that he founded in 1970 for the 43rd season of our Southern Right Whale Program with our partners Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas. He had made the journey this time to welcome a very special guest. Argentine filmmakers Boy Olmi and Dylan Williams had arranged a meeting at Whale Camp between two environmental icons, Jane Goodall and Roger Payne, in order to capture their conversations about their work to conserve whales and chimps, and to protect the environment as a whole from modern threats. The two shared meals, walks, and time with the whales, before returning to Buenos Aires to conduct a live webcast in which they discussed their hopes and fears about the task ahead. Read More

Southern Right Whale Aerial Survey Results

By | oct14, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

BLOG 3 – 17 September 2014

The Right Whale Program Research Update from the Field in Patagonia

The research season with the southern right whales at Península Valdés is progressing with good news. John Atkinson and I completed the 44th annual right whale photo-identification survey with a record number of whales seen: 757, most of which were mothers with their newborn calves. The first day we completed the survey of the northern bay, Golfo San José, and the second day we did Golfo Nuevo, the southern bay. This year there is a suprisingly large difference in the number of whales in each gulf, with nearly three times more whales in Golfo Nuevo than in San José. Read More

Returning to Whale Camp

By | Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

BLOG 1 – 3 September 2014

Greetings from Patagonia! We are just starting the 44th field research season of the Right Whale Program at Península Valdés, Argentina. Diego Taboada, José Carracedo and I drove from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia. The 17-hour drive took us from the great city to the isolated beauty of Whale Camp, the research station on the shores of Golfo San José. Not only were the whales waiting for us… an amazing group of young guanacos also greeted us at night! A very beautiful sight. Read More

Our Right Whale Team to Present at IWC Meeting on Increased Calf Mortality

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Researchers from our Southern Right Whale Program, our partners at Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program will be presenting five abstracts (listed below) at an International Whaling Commission meeting that will be held on Aug 5-6, 2014 in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Read More

A Happy Discovery from our Southern Right Whale Program

By | jun14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

If you’ve ever been on a whale watch, you’ve no doubt seen a naturalist busy snapping photos of the whales encountered. Far from taking pretty pictures, in most cases the naturalist is taking shots to identify and record the sighting of individual whales. With whales who are recurring visitors, they can track their life histories–their health, births, and wounds, and by comparing photographs with those of other organizations they can track migration patterns. Read More

A Comprehensive New Look at the Threats Facing Southern Right Whales

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Roger Payne in Patagonia - Photo by Flip NicklinSince Roger Payne began studying the southern right whales of Península Valdés, Argentina with Vicky Rowntree in the early seventies, threats to the whales have changed with the times, and a recent uptick in calf mortalities is raising new questions. Originally targeted by whalers as the “right whale to kill” because of its slow speed and tendency to float, this most endangered of the great whales faces challenges from diseases to the latest — kelp gull attacks.

With these new challenges have come new cooperation between organizations studying the southern right whale. Jasjeet Dhanota has put together a comprehensive look at the threats facing the southern right whales of Península Valdés in the latest issue of Evotis, the quarterly publication of UC Davis One Health Institute. She has interviewed many of the researchers on the ground about their work, including Vicky Rowntree, and Mariano Sironi of Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

Gull attacks - Photo by Mariano Sironi -The article also includes a video about the kelp gull attacks by former Voyage of the Odyssey team members Chris and Genevieve Johnson, who now run Whale Trackers — a series of online documentary programs about cetaceans.

Read the full article here.

The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Whale Conservation Institute/Ocean Alliance, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and Fundación Patagonia Natural; and by universities including the University of California, Davis and the University of Utah. The US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Marine Mammal Commission helped establish the program, and it is supported today by donations from foundations, private donors, and NGOs

Vicky Rowntree Speaks to BBC News About Counting Whales from Space

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Southern Right Whale ID - Photo by John AtkinsonThe news broke this week that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, led by Peter Fretwell, have created new satellite technologies that will allow researchers to conduct whale surveys from space instead of the traditional aerial and land-based surveys.

The BBC News spoke to our Right Whale Program Director Vicky Rowntree about our work with southern right whales in Argentina and what this new technology will mean for the future of whale research. Listen to the interview here.

A MESSAGE FROM IAIN KERR

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2013 has been a very productive and diverse year. Our primary goal, to protect whales and their ocean environment has never been more important or imperative so we cannot thank you enough for supporting our programs.

To counter the diverse challenges facing whales and our oceans we have made significant leaps forward with both old and new programs in 2013.  Following are a few highlights: Read More

SHARING DAYS WITH JANE GOODALL AND ROGER PAYNE IN PATAGONIA

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Roger Payne and Jane Goodall on beachTo wake up in the morning and find a lovely woman in the kitchen preparing a cup of hot coffee for breakfast.

To walk out the door and see a tall man on the porch, reading a book or writing some notes in his computer.

To cook and look out the window and see this woman and this man walking along the beach in front of the house and having a lively conversation.

These and other moments wouldn’t have been so special (in fact, so amazingly special!) for us if this woman and this man weren’t Jane Goodall and Roger Payne. But they are. And they are special (amazingly special!) people. Read More

ROGER PAYNE BRINGS JANE GOODALL TO WHALE CAMP

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Jane Goodall and Chimp - Photo by Michael NeugebauerRoger

Forty-three years ago Roger Payne built a shelter on the beach at Peninsula Valdes in Argentina to study the southern right whale. At the same time, Jane Goodall was living in the jungles of Tanzania studying her chosen species –  the chimpanzee. Each feared for the survival of their study subject and both have worked continuously since then to educate the world about conservation.  Read More

OCEAN ALLIANCE’S PARTNER ORGANIZATION IN ARGENTINA, INSTITUTO DE CONSERVACION DE BALLENAS (ICB), WINS PRESTIGIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD

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On September 27, 2013 Diego Alejandro Taboada, President of ICB, received a phone call.  According to the caller, ICB had received the BBVA Foundation’s Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America for “its extraordinary contribution over more than forty years to the understanding and conservation of the southern right whale.” Read More

JUST ANOTHER DAY AT WHALE CAMP – RAINBOW AND MOTHER/CALF PARADE!

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BLOG 7 September 6, 2013

An amazing day today!

Rainbow Over Whale Camp - Photo by Vicky Rowntree Just after the airflight team left to survey the whales, the rising sun created a beautiful rainbow that arched over the cliff-top observation site and appeared to land in the water directly in front of whale camp. After a dousing rain, I hiked to the cliffs and found a spot protected from the strong wind behind a broad bush to leave my backpack full of gear. Just as I dropped my pack I heard a loud blow beneath me and quickly unpacked the camera to take identification photographs of the white markings on the head of the whale that was passing by.  What followed was amazing!! Read More

ALARMING NUMBER OF SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE CALF FATALITIES

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BLOG 6 – September 2013 – Research Station in Península Valdés

Dead Right Whale Calf 2008 - Photo by Iain KerrI make “focal animal follows” of mothers and their calves to determine the amount of time they spend in high and low energy behaviors. The Península Valdés right whales have a big problem.  An unusually high number of calves have died on this calving ground since 2005. Read More

PARENTING YOUR TWO TON BUNDLE OF JOY

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BLOG 5 – September 2013 – Research Station in Península Valdés

Cliff Observation Site - Photo by Vicki RowntreeWhenever the wind is not blowing too hard, I spend my time on the cliffs of Península Valdés watching mother/calf pairs as they pass beneath me on their way to and from camp bay. I choose a mother/calf pair that is swimming along the coast towards me and continuously record the behavior of each whale until they pass out of sight. “Focal animal follows” are a wonderful way to get to know individual whales and learn how they spend their day. Read More

YET ANOTHER THREAT TO WHALES – GULL ATTACKS

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BLOG 4 – 1 September 2013 – at the Research Station in Península Valdés

Gull Attack on Right Whale We spent the day recording behavioral data from the cliffs. Vicky records the behavior of right whale mothers and calves, and their respiration rate as a way to estimate their body condition. I began our annual monitoring of the frequency of gull attacks on the whales. Kelp gulls have learned to feed on the skin and blubber of live whales at Península Valdés. The gulls land and peck on the back of the whales, opening lesions and affecting the whales’ behavior. Read More

THE FINGERPRINTS OF THE RIGHT WHALE – CALLOSITIES

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BLOG 3 – 30 August 2013 – from Península Valdés

Guanacos in Patagonia - Photo by Iain KerrWe spent a good part of this week at technical meetings and running errands in Puerto Madryn, the city nearest to Península Valdés. It is now 6:30 PM on a calm afternoon. As I write this, I am sitting in the truck in the middle of nowhere, looking at the endless shrubland around me, while a family of guanacos (the South American camels) walks slowly among the thorny bushes. We drove to this particular spot because it is one of the few “high” places where we can get cell phone signal to connect to the outside world, send and receive messages, make phone calls… and wait for a friend. Read More

THE OLD MAN AND THE WHALE

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The Old Man and the WhaleAs the Right Whale team arrives in Patagonia for our 43rd field season we wanted to share with you a unique opportunity to learn more about Península Valdés – the people, the setting and the whales. The Old Man and the Whale is a small treasure of a book that will transport you to our whale camp, written by a man who knows it well. John Atkinson has been traveling to Patagonia from Canada every year for over 21 years, for the sole purpose of hanging out of an airplane to take aerial photos of the whales. He has immersed himself in the culture, so it only made sense for him as a full-time writer to write a story about a place he loves. Read More

OUR 43RD FIELD SEASON IN PATAGONIA BEGINS

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Southern Right Whale Mother and CalfRight whales are the most endangered of great whales. When Dr. Roger Payne started gathering data on the Southern Right whale in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina in 1970 he was concerned that this species might be lost forever and so Ocean Alliance’s Southern Right Whale Program began.

For centuries, right whales were hunted mercilessly. Early whalers called them “the right whales to kill” because they are slow, have a thick blubber layer that produces abundant oil, and float when dead. Southern right whales were protected internationally in 1935. As whalers stopped hunting right whales, the populations in the southern hemisphere have recovered substantially, although they are still below their pre-whaling sizes.

Over the last 43 years we have conducted aerial surveys monitoring the right whale populations, our catalog now contains over 3,000 photo-identified individual right whales from Península Valdés, Argentina. Important findings on the biology of right whales were obtained using benign, non-lethal techniques. Among other things, we now know that females reproduce on average once every three years, their mean age at first parturition is 9 years, the annual rate of population increase is 5.1%, juveniles use breeding grounds to socialize with other juveniles and to potentially learn important behaviors, and right whales can shift their distribution along the shorelines of Península Valdés over decades.

The documented growth of the population of southern right whales in Argentina has been regarded for several decades as a sign of hope that recovery can occur in a whale species, but recent mortality events suggest that this population of whales may be less healthy and robust than previously thought. This reinforces the importance of continuing our research and monitoring efforts to help understand the population trends and their causes.

Southern Right Whale The great whales are important indicators of ocean health because they consume such large quantities of food and occupy home ranges that span thousands of miles. The Patagonian right whale population is recognized as one of the best indicators of the response of baleen whales to climate change in the Southern Ocean because the reproductive histories of so many of its individuals have been recorded continuously for four decades. Continuing the annual aerial surveys of the Patagonian right whale population is essential for understanding the health of this population and its extremely important western South Atlantic ecosystem.

“The (Right Whale) data you (Ocean Alliance) hold would no doubt be the single most valuable source of information on whales and their environment available… there really is nothing else out there quite as good.”
– Steve Reilly, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The Patagonian Right Whale Program is now a collaborative effort of Ocean Alliance and Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), an Argentine nonprofit founded by Roxana Schteinbarg and Diego Taboada, based in Buenos Aires. For more information please visit the the ICB website or the English version.

We look forward to sharing with you our 43rd field season in Argentina in the coming weeks.