This whalewatch season in Hervey Bay, Australia marks an exciting continuation of Pacific Whale Foundation’s mission to protect our oceans and study the humpback whales in the East Australian population. These whales stop over in Platypus Bay every winter on their migration back to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) began its long relationship with Australia’s whalewatching capital in the 1980s when our Founder and Executive Director, Greg Kaufman, discovered the beauty of the humpback whales in Platypus Bay, off of Fraser Island, and pioneered the area’s first whalewatch on a borrowed fishing boat. Since then, Greg and the PWF researchers have been important figures in Hervey Bay, conducting photo-identification studies on these amazing animals each winter.
“So what brought you out here? And … how? How did you do it?”
We get this question a lot. Many folks are fascinated by the steps it takes to become a Pacific Whale Foundation certified Marine Naturalist. Our naturalists are college grads from all over the country – Minnesota, Kansas, California, Idaho, Florida, you name the state – we’ve most likely had a naturalist from there. The majority of us applied online and had numerous phone and Skype interviews, where we were able to show our enthusiasm and demonstrate our knowledge of marine conservation. Plenty of us had other experiences outside of college before we started here, including marine mammal research, internships, and other field work. Our hiring managers must have an incredibly difficult time making their selections from all the interested and skilled applicants – who doesn’t want to move to Maui?
Sea turtles are one of the main attractions of the Isla De La Plata tour. Hundreds of tourists look forward to arriving at Drake Bay to watch turtles gather around the boat giving them one of the most amazing spectacles of their lives. Some rush to submerge their GoPros in the water in hope of catching an underwater glimpse of this ancient creature of the sea, while others prefer to take pictures them from the top of the vessel to get a wider perspective.
However, it was not always like this. Only 5 years ago, sea turtles were rarely seen at Drake Bay, Isla De La Plata. So what was caused this increase in sea turtle numbers in such a short time?
For year, captains from Isla De La Plata vessels would rush straight to the island and barely slow down until they reached Drake Bay. If they were asked by tourists or guides to slow down because of potential collisions with sea turtles, they would respond with “sorry, we need to arrive as soon as possible”. Captains did not much care about the sea turtles, as they were not tourist attractions and slowing down was considered a waste of their time. Luckily for the turtles, this was about to change in a drastic way.
Machalilla National Park hired a new manager, who ordered the park rangers to be alert of speeding vessels near Isla De La Plata and to enforce speed limits that had long been in place. The fining of a single vessel is all it took to begin to see a change in vessels navigating these waters.
Under the coordination of the Ministry of Environment and Machalilla National Park, Pacific Whale Foundation Ecuador provided a free training during the months of August through early September. The gathering was a unique opportunity for Puerto López residents to learn from National Park representatives. Specifically directed towards those in constant interaction with whales, the training was attended by park rangers, guides, and captains of Machalilla National Park.
Collectively, the training brought together about 90 people including both veteran guides with many years of experience and new ones who will help with future protection. We were delighted to have the talkative guides with all their questions and even the silent captains who needed teambuilding games to loosen their tongues a little!
Whalewatching continues to grow globally with new markets emerging. Guatemala is the latest country seeking to develop whale watch operations off its Pacific coast focusing on the annual migration of humpback whales that migrate through their waters December through June. The humpbacks are thought to be en route to/from their breeding and calving grounds off Costa Rica, and likely spend their summer months feeding near central California northward to BC, Canada.
Greg Kaufman, founder of Pacific Whale Foundation recently traveled to the small coastal community of Montericco, Guatemala — best known for its 20km- long nature reserve of coast and coastal mangrove wetlands — to speak with tour operators about whalewatching and learn first-hand their challenges and whale observations.
The department of tourism, INGUAT, reached out to Kaufman for advice on this new developing industry. They stressed the importance of wanting to take a scientific approach to cultivate sustainable tourism in the area. Kaufman shared his thoughts on regulation and responsible practices.
Ocean Spirit looked elegant and vibrant like a racehorse ready to go, as crew members tend to last minute tests and system checks. Five crew members will set sail on a 5880.85 mile journey, from St. Croix, USVI to Maui, HI. Ocean Spirit, will be the ninth vessel of Pacific Whale Foundation’s eco fleet.
PWF’s Founder Greg Kaufman, joined our Eco Team on sea trials from Salt River Bay, St. Croix. Sails were drawn and she proved to be strong as well as fast, reaching a top speed of 21.9 knots! Final preparations will continue this week for scheduled departure on November 1, weather permitting. Stay tuned as will will report and track Ocean Spirit’s journey along the way.