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.
With over 7,200 photos taken, Vicky Rowntree will have a lot of work to analyze them in the lab in Utah! The identifying photographs will be incorporated into the right whale catalog and database, which are used to monitor the population dynamics, distribution along the shores of Península Valdés, and its overall status.
Flying in tight circles in a small plane for over five hours like we did this year in Golfo Nuevo can be exhausting. However, the beauty of the black silhouettes of the whales swimming in shallow waters with their newborn babies is so magnificent that the weariness and the effort are worth it!
Monitoring gull attack frequency
Kelp gulls have learned to feed on the skin and blubber of live southern right whales at Península Valdés. The gull attacks affect the normal behavior of the whales and cause severe lesions on their backs. We have monitored the frequency of gull attacks annually since 1995. This long-term database can be used to evaluate if management actions to reduce the harassment by kelp gulls are effective.
Several research assistants are helping this year with field work and data collection: Alejandro Fernández Ajó, Florencia Vilches, Mariana Lanfiutti, Magalí Olmedo, Agustina Saez, Natalia Rivetti, Paula Faiferman and Lucía Alzugaray. This enthusiastic group of young researchers and friends are essential to the success of this project. Our big thanks go to them!
Monitoring right whale health by post-mortem examinations
When a whale dies and strands on the beach, it becomes a source of important information to evaluate the health of the population. Since 2003, the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program has perfomed post-mortem examination on nearly 700 whales that died and then stranded on the beaches of Península Valdés. This Program is a joint effort run by the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, the Ocean Alliance, the University of California – Davis, the University of Utah, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fundación Patagonia Natural.
The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission has expressed “concern over the high calf mortality reported in the Península Valdés southern right whale population and recommends that the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program continue as a high priority under the IWC’s Conservation Management Plan.”
Coordinated in the field by Veterinarian Matías di Martino in cooperation with Lucas Beltramino, veterinarians and biologists perform post-mortem examinations of every dead whale that is reported by the Stranding Network or that is found during regular surveys. So far, 12 calves and 1 adult have died this season, which is a much lower number of dead whales than we recorded in recent years by mid-September.
Special thank yous…
For a number of reasons, two very dear persons are not with us in the field at Península Valdés this year. Vicky Rowntree, the Right Whale Program’s Director with the Ocean Alliance, is a source of inspiration for me and for many whale researchers working in Argentina and in other countries. Marcos Ricciardi, Regional Coordinator of Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Puerto Madryn, is a delightful presence full of positive energy in the field and everywhere! Both are, of course, very dear friends to all of us. So, we send our biggest whale hugs and we say thank you, Vicky and Marcos for being two warm lights in our lives! We want both of you here next year!
None of the above would make any sense without whales in the oceans. So, one last special thank you goes to Hueso, a 15-year old whale that I first met when she was born in 1999. Hueso is back in this bay with her third calf! And I thank her for inspiring me to keep doing what I have been doing for the past 20 years.
Mariano Sironi, from Península Valdés in Argentina