Bahia de Petatlan, Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and Troncones are part of the migration route of approximately 2000 endangered humpback whales, as identified by researchers through NOAA's* SPLASH Project. While we have known of the whales’ presence in the area for years, no formal studies of the whales in this southern region of the Eastern North Pacific have ever taken place.
The Bahia de Petatlan, a 75-square mile area where we are running our pilot study, runs along a pristine 12-mile sweep of beach and is part of a unique, unprotected region in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. This small region is host to eight distinct ecosystems in one small area and the local waters are the winter mating and calving grounds for a group of humpback whales each year.
Mexico has specific laws in place regarding whale-watching activities from private vessels to minimize stress on the whales, to protect them from unintentional injury by boaters and to ensure that the mothers and calves are never separated from each other. At this time, there is minimal awareness of safe whale watch laws among boat operators and local guides who take visitors to the area to view the whales.
*US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Our Two Immediate Goals:
- Conduct a field study of the humpback whale population in the area in order to establish a population count, contribute to the Fluke Identification Count, record their vocalizations, record cow/calf pairs, behaviors and movement patterns around the bay.
- Host workshops and training sessions for boat operators, fishermen, tourist-oriented business owners, residents and visitors of the area, led by scientists and educators from Mexico and the United States, with a track record of successfully creating a responsible whale watching ethos in their local waters. Our intention is to raise awareness about responsible whale watching practices and the amazing creatures we are privileged to share the water with each year.
Why Does This Matter?
A Very Special Natural Region of Mexico Needs Protection Now.
Protecting Endangered Whales Calls Focus to the Area as a Place Worth Saving.
Bahia de Petatlan, Laguna Potosi and the small fishing village of Barra de Potosi are in danger of environmental degradation. In recent years, FONATUR, (Fondo National de Turismo), the Mexican national trust fund for tourist development approached cruise ship lines with an offer for a pier to be built in front of the estuary fed by Bahia de Potosi. Fortunately, the proposal was eventually abandoned, mostly likely due to financial challenges and pressure from the local community. Not only does the open water host a population of migrating whales and countless species of fish, bird and sea life, but a 450-acre estuary surrounds the 600-person fishing village located at the end of the beach. A local group of concerned citizens is in the final stages of seeking Natural Protected Area status for this important ecosystem to remove the threat of future development. A scientific study of the wintering humpback whale population will greatly enhance the status of the application and could tip the scales in favor of protection.
Impoverished Locals Need Work
In recent years, the fish population appears to have declined, mostly likely due to an increase in commercial gillnet fishing and climate change. Local fishermen are growing desperate. Many resort to harvesting endangered turtle eggs and selling them as a means of survival. Creating a viable whale watching tourist operation could help to alleviate this financial pressure.
When the Whales Win, Everybody Wins
Good for Whale Science:
- We will have a clearer understanding of the local humpback whale population size and movement patterns through daily data collection and fluke identification shots. Our work will be a valuable contribution to the Fluke Identification Catalog and give us information through potential matches to whales in the Banderas Bay Area as to the movement patterns of this and possibly other stocks of whales.
Good for Nature:
- A census of the visiting whale population will be valuable data that can be added to petitions in progress by local environmental organizations to create a protected sanctuary of the region.
- We will have established working partnerships and communication between respected whale watch companies along the entire Western Pacific Coast.
Good for Whales:
- We will design and build websites and brochures about whale watching in the Bahia de Potosi with whale watch information, facts about humpback whales and safe whale watching guidelines. The brochures will be printed and disseminated throughout the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area.
- Six workshops led by local, national and international leaders in whale conservation and identification will have been conducted among the local and visitor populations, leading to an increased awareness about the whale population and safe whale watching practices.
Good for Local Business and Tourism:
- A sustainable, responsible whale watch company will have been started in the area, giving local fishermen extra means to support themselves and their families.
- We will have an established path for new guides to follow for the following year’s census and whale watch trips.
- Plans are in place to bring American students to Mexico to participate in whale and Bay conservation and conduct and cultural exchange.
- An increase in awareness about the presence of whales in the area will encourage ecotourism in the area.
Good for the World:
- After visits from teachers in the U.S. and Mexico plans will be in progress to bring recent high school graduates to the area in coming years to participate in whale studies and conservation, encouraging them to become citizen scientists and naturalists.
- Upon completion of this project, we will have created a working prototype to apply to other small developing nation villages with consistent whale populations and underemployed fishermen.