Field season in Australia is underway

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia research program is off to a great start this year. Based out of the town of Hervey Bay, we observe the whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia, travelling south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. We have had some amazing whale encounters, and we are already starting to see mothers arriving with their calves. Our research staff and volunteers have been going out daily since mid-July to photograph the humpback whales that migrate through the region. The whales in this population mate and have their calves in the tropical areas of northeast Australia and Oceania. The bay is relatively shallow and protected by Fraser Island, offering a nice area for the whales to stop over during their long migration south.

Working from the MV Amaroo operated by the Hervey Bay Boat Club, our researchers take opportunistic identification photos of the underside of the whales’ tail flukes. Since each fluke is unique to the individual, these photos allow us to compare the fluke of each whale we see in the field with our catalog of known whales to determine the history of sightings for each animal. Additionally, the team tries to get photos of the dorsal fins and body of the animal which helps us assess overall body condition as well as any lesions or scars that may indicate injury or poor health. To learn more about our Australian research projects, visit our website. To try your hand at matching fluke photos from our South Pacific catalog, create an account and get started at Match My Whale.


The lives and loves of Machalilla National Park

It is always exciting to see competing pods of male humpback whales. Their jumps, bumps, and tail maneuvers directed at the females also serve to amaze and surprise us observers. Puerto Lopez, the marine area off the Machalilla National Park, is known for breeding and mating humpback whales. It is a magical place and very exciting to see these whales looking for love. This month we will likely begin to see the calves during our encounters, the product of last year’s mating.

Newborn calves are born a whopping 4 meters in length and have a light whitish color. This appearance makes them even more beautiful to us than their parents are. Though their size and weight may be small, they can easily propel their bodies out of the water, often imitating the adult behaviors.

This week we came across what we presumed to be a pregnant female with two accompanying adults. Close to Isla de La Plata, the group of three humpbacks seemed to be helping each other. One appeared pregnant and looked ready to give birth, the other two appearing to help. The behavior was incredible to watch. The escort would slowly suspend his tail in the air then gently assist in floating the slow moving pregnant female to the surface with nudges from his rostrum. Sometimes we could see the head pop up beneath the female, similar to a spy hope but very slow.  We were hoping to witness a birth, and stayed as long as possible, but with no luck.

When we have such close encounters and see a new life being created in Ecuadorian waters, we pledge to work harder for these magnificent creatures. Humpback whales are part of our world, and we consider them to be Ecuadorian because they are made and born in Ecuador.


Siempre es exitante ver ballenas, sus saltos, golpes de cola y todas las maniobras que hacen para sorprender a las hembras. Por supuesto, Puerto López y el área marina del Parque Nacional Machalilla es una mágica área de amor y pasión de ballenas. Es conocida como área de reproducción y apareamiento. Sin embargo a partir de este mes, lo que más me gusta, es encontrar crías o bebes de ballenas.

Me encanta cuando una madre esta cerca a su cría, la cobija y no se separa de ella. Las crías nacen con 4 metros de largo y tienen un color más claro y blanquesino. Las crías saltan muchas veces o tratan de imitar el comportamiento de los adultos, son todavía más bellas y tiernas, aunque su tamaño y peso realmente nos supere.

Esta semana pudimos encontrar crías pero tambien hembras preñadas.  Cerca a la Isla de La Plata había un grupo de tres  jorobadas que parecía ayudarse unas con otras. Una de ellas preñada y lista para dar a luz, dos de sus compañeros simulaban ayudarle, su comportamiento era increible, como flotando, sacaban la cola lentamente y la mantenían en el aire y después era como que empujaban a la hembra a la superficie, estaba gorda y nadaba lentamente. A veces podía ver sus cabezas lentamente como en posición de espía. Esperamos todo el tiempo que pudimos, cruzando los dedos por ver a la cría, no tuvimos suerte, pero estamos seguros que esa cría nació en ese día.

Cuando tenemos estas experiencias de cerca y podemos ver crear nueva vida y esta vida esta en aguas ecuatorianas, nos comprometemos a trabajar más duro, para seguirlas viendo nacer y no tener que verlas morir a manos de la cacería inconsciente y discriminada, que no entiende que el mundo es una solo y que estamos obligados a compartirlo y no ha dominarlo. Las ballenas jorobadas son parte de nuestro mundo, son ecuatorianas porque nacen y se hacen en Ecuador.

Humpback whales are freeing our hearts

It was a Sunday afternoon when a woman sent me a text message explaining that she had been observing whales on land with binoculars in Ayampe (20 minutes away from Puerto Lopez). Unfortunately, during her whalewatching, she spotted an entangled whale trailing yellow buoys, which are commonly used on nets in the area. She further explained that the net was draped over the whales back, and it was almost stranding near Ayampe beach.

A terrible sensation flooded me as I rushed to call the Machalilla National Park whale entanglement rescue team. The team, including myself, were ready in no time and went out into a really choppy ocean with high hopes of finding and freeing the whale. After about an hour of looking, we finally spotted the distressed animal fairly close to shore. It appeared to be struggling to get the net away from its mouth, closing and opening it with a comprehensible amount of desperation and fear.

Following the usual procedure the team started to add buoys to the entanglement, hoping the added weight would tire the whale so it would stay at the surface. This would then allow the team to be able to remove the net using long poles and sharp blades. Unfortunately, while attempting to cut through the large amount of net around the whale’s fluke, the cutting knife became dislodged and was lost in the ocean. This was difficult as the knife was specially made by NOAA and donated to us to use when freeing entangled whales. With no other options, the rescue team started using hooks made by the park rangers of Machalilla National Park. One by one, these hooks made with steel started to bend from the heavy netting. The whale at this time had so much bunched netting that the pressure of trying to cut it was futile. This was by far the most difficult rescue we had experienced and the bunched netting was too strong for our blades.

Soon the day started fading away and we started losing hope and realized we needed additional help. One of the park rangers and rescue team member decided to call his brother, who was a diving fisherman, and asked him to come and help. When he arrived, his team was ready to help. They put on their dive gear and cautiously got into the water with the helpless whale. It took about 4 more hours of risky direct contact with the stressed whale to take most of the net off and free the pectoral fins. When this happened, the whale recovered its strength and started swimming fast and trying to dive. We realized this was the time to let go, as it was getting dark and was going to be almost impossible for us to remove the last bit of remaining net around its flukes. Hopefully, the remaining gear will untangle or detach by itself.

We watched the whale swim away looking much less distressed and welcoming its regained freedom. In the middle of the ocean we lay there, tired, hungry and cold, but satisfied we did everything we could to help the whale. Nothing could take that satisfaction away from us. Not only did we free the whale from a slow and tragic death, but we had also comforted a bit of our own guilt, as the whale was caught in our man-made netting.

I would like to thank the special people of Machalilla National Park whale entanglement team and the fishermen who were able to come and help. Thank you for dedicating your time and even risking your lives to this noble effort of giving another opportunity to these gentle giants of the sea. Whales are definitely freeing our hearts.

Las ballenas jorobadas estan liberando nuestros corazones

Era una domingo por la tarde cuando una señora me escribio a mi celular. Ella habia estado observando ballenas con binoculares desde Ayampe, a tan solo 20 minutos de Puerto Lopez. No traia buenas noticias: ella habia observado una ballena enredada en redes de pesca con las caracteristicas boyas amarillas alrededor de su cuerpo, muy cercana a varar en las playas de Ayampe.

Una terrible sensación inmediatamente me invadio mientras me apresure a llamar al equipo de rescate del Parque Nacional Machalilla. Pronto estuvimos listos para zarpar en busca de la ballena. Despues de casi 1 hora de busqueda, finalmente la encontramos muy cerca a la orilla, luchando por deshacerse de la red que envolvia su rostro, mandibula y aletas pectorales, abriendo y cerrando la boca con un comprensible nivel de desesperacion y miedo.

Siguiendo el procedimiento habitual, el equipo empezo a amarrar boyas a la ballena, en un intento de cansarla y calmarla, para que permanezca en la superficie y que ellos sean capaces de cortar la red utilizando un tubo largo y una cuchilla especial. Debido a la enorme cantidad de red entrelazada en la cola de la ballena, la gran cantidad de presion al tratar de cortarla hizo que perdieramos la cuchilla especial que el equipo de rescate de ballenas de NOAA nos habia donado en años anteriores, de modo que tuvimos que reemplazar estas con unas cuchillas artesanales que los guardaparques del Parque Nacional Machalilla habian desarrollado para esta causa. Una por una, esas cuchillas, hechas de acero, comenzaron a doblarse…SI, a doblarse. La ballena tenia tanta red amontonada en su cola que la presion al intentar cortarla era demasiada…una presion que no habiamos experimentado antes, y que era mucho mas fuerte que nuestras cuchillas.

Pronto, el dia empezaba a esfumarse, junto con nuestras esperanzas..necesitabamos ayuda. Uno de los guardapaques del equipo llamo a su hermano, pescador buzo de Puerto Lopez, y le pidio ayuda. Cuando llegaron, el equipo de rescate no dudo en ningun momento: al instante usaron el equipo de compresion y tomaron las mangueras para sumergirse a bucear con la tan necesitada ballena. Tomo 4 horas mas de un peligroso contacto directo con la estresada ballena para removerla mayoria de la red de pesca y finalmente liberar sus aletas pectorales. Cuando esto ocurrio, la ballena recupero su fuerza e inmediatamente empezo a nadar rapido y a tratar de sumergirse. Entonces nos dimos cuenta que ya era tiempo de dejarla ir..el dia se estaba oscureciendo e iba a resultar casi imposible ya removerle el ultimo resto de cuerda alrededor de su cola…el cual ojala con el tiempo se desenrede o degrade por si solo.

Finalmente, observamos a la ballena irse nadando..ya no con movimientos bruscos ni de inconformidad, sino simplemente de nado y bienvenida a su libertad recuperada. En la mitad del oceano, alli yaciamos, cansados, hambrientos y con frio…pero satisfechos. Ni siquiera la sensacion mas perturbadora podria quitarnos esa satisfaccion tan inmensa. No solamente habiamos librado a una ballena de una muerte lenta y tragica….tambien habiamos consolado un poco de nuestra culpa…la culpa de cada uno de nosotros los humanos, responsables por el daño que les hacemos a estas maravillosas criaturas, y al mundo entero. Agradezco a las personas especiales del equipo de rescate de ballenas del Parque Nacional Machalilla, y a los pescadores que siempre estan dispuestos a ayudar. Gracias por dedicarles su tiempo y hasta poner en riesgo sus vidas para este noble esfuerzo de darles una nueva oportunidad a estos gentiles gigantes del oceano. Definitivamente las ballenas estan liberando a nuestros corazones..

Sea Turtles of Isla De La Plata

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.

At first, captains were a little reluctant to abide by the enforced regulations, but with time and the increasing numbers of sea turtles catching the tourists’ attention, they themselves started to sympathize with this wonderful animal.

Today, sea turtles can be easily be found in big aggregations around Isla De La Plata. The population seems to be thriving and the turtles have become a major feature in Isla La Plata tours. Sea turtles have not only stolen our hearts, but also those of the boat captains, who once did not care about them at all. Now when a captain is asked to hurry to the island they respond with: “no, the turtles need us to slow down to ensure their safety”.

Las Tortugas Marinas En La Isla De La Plata

Las tortugas marinas son una de las atracciones principales del tour a la Isla de la Plata, y cada año cientos de turistas esperan al momento de verlas rodear el bote y darles uno de los más increíbles espectáculos de sus vidas cuando llegan a Bahía Drake. Algunos se apresuran a sumergir sus Gopros en el agua con la esperanza de vislumbrar bajo el agua a estas criaturas ancestrales del mar, mientras otros prefieren tomarles fotografías desde la parte superior del bote para obtener una amplia imagen de su presencia.

Sin embargo, no siemprefue así. Hace solo 5 años atrás, pocas eran las tortugas que se podían observar en la Isla, y el tour a la isla no era promovido con la idea de observar tortugas. ¿Entonces, que cambio en tan poco tiempo? Hace tan solo 5 años, los capitanes de las embarcaciones que iban a la Isla iban tan apurados por ganarle a los demás botes y terminar el tour rápido que apenas disminuían la velocidad hasta llegar a Bahía Drake. Si algún turista o guía les pedían que bajen la velocidad para no chocarse contra tortugas marinas, ellos se molestaban y simplemente decían: “¡que tortugas ni que tortugas!, debemos llegar rápido a la isla”. A ellos no les importaban las tortugas marinas: ellas no eran atracciones turísticas y solo les hacían perder el tiempo al tener que bajar la velocidad. Afortunadamente, esto estaba a punto de cambiar…

Al Parque Nacional Machalilla llego un nuevo jefe de área, quien ordeno a todos los guardaparques que estén alerta de botes que no acaten la ley de bajar la velocidad cerca de la isla de la Plata, y de aplicar medidas estrictas a las embarcaciones que no cumplieran con esta regulación (que ya existía, pero que nadie obedecia). Tan solo basto una multa y demanda a una de las embarcaciones para que todo cambiara….y para recuperar a nuestra población de tortugas marinas en la Isla de la Plata.

Al principio, los capitanes estaban renuentes a acatar esta disposición, pero con tiempo y el incremento de observación de tortugas en la Isla de la Plata que atraían a los turistas, ellos mismos empezaron a simpatizar con estos hermosos animales, e incluso empezaron a alimentarlas con lechuga y frutas, para de alguna manera atraer a las pocas tortugas que aun había en ese entonces en la Isla, y que al mismo tiempo estas entretengan al turista.

En la actualidad, las tortugas marinas pueden ser encontradas fácilmente en grandes agregaciones en Bahia Drake. La población esta totalmente recuperada y se ha convertido en una importante parte del tour a la Isla de la Plata! Estos hermosos reptiles no solo se han robado nuestros corazones, sino también los corazones de los capitanes de los botes de turismo, a quienes antes no les importaban. Ellos ahora verdaderamente las aprecian mucho, hasta el punto que, cuando les dicen que se apuren para llegar rápido a la isla, ellos mismos responden: “No, las tortugas necesitan que bajemos la velocidad para estar a salvo”.

Unusual Encounter with Bryde’s Whale in Ecuador

We were welcomed by a beautiful sunny day on the first week of the Ecuador research season. The excitement began when we saw the sun reflecting off of a whales’ dorsal fin, which was quickly followed by the characteristic blow. Echoing the whales blow were the cheers of excitement from the tourists as they knew we were about to experience seeing these amazing animals and confirm the start of our research season.

When you are in Isla de la Plata it’s easy to tell when the whales have arrived, as the horizon is dotted with white plumes of water vapor from the whales blow. This season, however, humpback whales are not the only species capturing the attention of tourists. The Bryde’s whale (pronounced “broodus” whale) has remained longer than usual and has captured everyone’s attention. Tourists may find the “not so acrobatic” Bryde’s whale less enchanting than the humpback whale, which is known for it’s magnificent breaches. For researchers, being able to study both species simultaneously is a rare occurrence, akin to finding a pot of gold.

Brydes Whale_resize

We have been limited to reports of feeding Bryde’s whales among large groups of birds to date, however, today we got the opportunity to photograph this species. Normally this species is moving continually, presenting few opportunities for photo-ID, but today’s encounter lasted for almost 10 minutes! We are looking forward to seeing more of them and, of course, searching for possible interactions with humpback whales. After all, they are all sharing the same magical area that is Machalilla National Park.

Whalewatching with “The Greatest”

Pacific Whale Foundation was founded in 1980, in Makena, Maui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our roots are embedded in credible research studies, backed by effective education and critical conservation programs. Through the years, Pacific Whale Foundation has grown to become “the people’s whale organization.” Each year Pacific Whale Foundation takes nearly 300,000 supporters out on the water to experience whales “face-to-fluke,” or marine life “face-to-fin.” Our supporters come from all regions of the globe, and are of every race, color, creed, religion and political persuasion.

We have worked successfully to bridge the chasm of hard science by bringing scientific findings to the public to comprehend and act upon. We have engaged and enlisted the support of the public in a worthy and winnable cause: to save whales and their ocean home.

During the last three decades I have had some incredible whale experiences at Pacific Whale Foundation. People always ask me “what was the best whalewatching experience you ever had?” or “tell me about your most amazing whale experience.” Having spent thousands of hours on the ocean in the presence of whales, it really is hard to choose just one to single out as “the greatest” whale experience.

Frankly, I hope that experience has yet to happen. It is what drives me to discover, to learn more, and to seek out new venues to study whales. My experiences with ‘Migaloo’, the only all-white humpback whale in the world have been incredible and awe-inspiring. So too has been the time I spent underwater with humpback whales – most notably the time a curious calf gathered me in his pec fins and tried to carry me down to his waiting mother, literally taking my breath away.

When I reflect on my experiences with the whales, however, it is really my shared experiences watching whales with people I recall most fondly. In 1981, when we were a fledgling organization, 112 fourth graders from Kihei Elementary raised $3,800 (all in quarters!) for our research efforts. That whalewatch from Ma’alaea Harbor with those kids (whose kids are now adults going on whalewatches with Pacific Whale Foundation with their kids) will forever live fresh in my memory.

There have been hundreds of similar experiences that motivate and remind me of how sound and just our mission is. Last evening, Ocean Voyager’s sunset whalewatch, was another poignant reminder. It was a perfect evening for a whalewatch — light winds, clear skies, calm seas, plenty of whales, a perfect sunset and a glorious full moon. A picture perfect whalewatch experienced by myself and 92 other passengers, including “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, and his dear friend, singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson.

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