Whales of Potosi Research Project

whale-breachThis project is designed to be a five-year study. By the end of our study, we will have gathered sufficient data on the migratory humpback whale population to have a clear understanding of their abundance and distribution in the region. By inviting residents of the region to participate as citizen scientists in the study, to benefit from utilizing optimal practices around marine wildlife and to serve as ambassadors of the area’s wondrous natural resources we hope to witness a strong shift toward informed, responsible marine wildlife ecotourism by the end of five years.

Five-Year Project Goals (2014-2018)

  1. Establish a clear understanding of our humpback whale population size and distribution.
  2. Share whale science data with Mexican and worldwide scientific communities.
  3. Become SEMARNAT-acknowledged marine mammal site.
  4. Develop worldwide reputation as a unique, diverse marine wildlife hotspot.
  5. Train regional guides to offer informed, responsible marine wildlife tours.
  6. Raise awareness among recreational boaters and professional fishermen about optimal boat operation around whales.

Project Objectives (2016-2017)

  1. Run the 4th annual 300-hour marine mammal survey. We will hire three local fishermen to collect data, including DSLR camera photography, data collection, entry, correction, mapping, analysis and presentation. Three graduate student marine biologist volunteers will work alongside the fishermen and teach them these skills.
  2. Teach local marine biology at 12 schools in 5 towns and cities, reaching 1000+ kids. Offer a minimum of 1 workshop/week at the library in Barra de Potosi. Bring local Barra kids and high school kids from Zihutanejo aboard our boat to study wildlife with us.
  3. Share our discoveries and information about the rich marine wildlife in our region at public events at least once/week, including on the radio, television, through the newspaper, at the eco-tianguis, at hotels and in other public places and gatherings to reach 200,000+ people.
  4. Teach 50+ guides and fishermen about whales and dolphins in a two-day intensive training program.
  5. Increase ecotourism in our region through our expeditions and outreach programs.
  6. Bring 14 community thought leaders from our region to Baja for a fishermen’s cultural exchange in San Ignacio Lagoon, Cabo Pulmo and Punto Abreojos. Our group will experience first-hand examples of thriving ecologies and financial success as a result of responsible community managed stewardship. 
  7. Work with our community to make a long-term conservation plan for our region, based on what we have seen and discussed locally and in Baja.

Spring 2015 - Fall 2016 Accomplishments

Objective 1: We involved boat operators, beach dwellers and schools in the collection and analysis of our marine mammal survey data to increase knowledge about whales and dolphins and engender an ethos of marine stewardship.

    • We created meaningful connections between primaria, secondaria students, fishermen and tour guides and individual whales through the indirect adoption, naming and history tracking of individuals. 20 whales were named and adopted between 2015-2016.
    • We completed a 10-week (305 hour) marine mammal population and distribution survey in the water surrounding the municipalities of Petatlan and Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa conducted in partnership with local boat operators, tour and sportfishing guides, naturalists, educators and schoolchildren.
    • We hired and trained four (4) local fishermen and guides to work as citizen scientists on our project and gave them tools to practice optimal marine mammal observation protocols and offer interesting, accurate tours.
    • We collected data on 45 sightings of 76 humpback whales and collected photo IDs of 34 flukes. We also recorded 1954 individual dolphins including: 120 pantropical spotted dolphin sightings, 35 Rough-toothed dolphin sightings, 10 Bottlenose dolphin sightings and two spinner dolphin sightings and two individual Cuvier’s beaked whale.
    • Data was presented at three conferences (Society for Marine Mammalogy- 2000+ global delegates from 65 countries – 2 posters, 1 speedtalk and SOMEMMA (Mexican Marine Mammal Society) – 200+ primarily Mexican delegates (2 talks) – ICMMPA (International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Area) 200+ delegates from 14 countries - (panel participant) - all community members who worked as a part of our data collection were named as authors and participants in the presentations and the information was shared with the participants that their contribution has reached an international audience).
    • We shared the scientific data collected during the period of performance nationally and internationally with: NOAA, UABCS, ECOBAC, UNAM (Department of Marine Biology and Department of Genetics), Universidad del Mar Oaxaca, Universidad de Colima, CONANP, SEMARNAT, Cascadia Research Collective, Happy Whale and with over 20 whale watching enterprises and individuals who collect data on humpback whale flukes of the same population.
    • We created a community-driven whale spotting network, with participation of 80+ professional sport fishing guides, 150+ fishermen and 50+ beach dwellers will increase awareness of and interest in marine mammals, help us to photo ID whales and identify preferred resting, calving, courting and singing grounds.
    • Locally, we shared our data with: The communities of Barra de Potosi, Juluchuca, Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Troncones and la Mahajua via a daily sightings map and calendar and updated fluke catalog with resighting information that gets presented annually to each community during an end-of-season event. We also shared our data with the Capitania del Puerto of Zihuatanejo, the Department of Tourism, the Department of Ecology, the Department of the Environment, the Mexican Navy, 12 schools in Zihuatanejo and Barra de Potosi, and online to our Facebook friends at http://www.facebook.com/whalesinmexico
    • We ran a 100-hour land-based pilot study to collect data on boat/whale interactions in our region. The field station, located in a picturesque but neglected lighthouse overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay, has been cleaned up and access improved, creating opportunities for future touristic sightseeing and a natural educational center to be built. We collaborated with the Department of the Environment, the Mexican Navy and private business owners to clear the road leading to the field station, clean up and improve the lighthouse, making it safe for work and visitors, and we communicated with all boat operators who own radios to receive information about whale and dolphin activity in the area.
    • We designed, printed and updated (daily) physical marine mammal sightings maps and calendars during the field season and also reported our sightings online. The map and calendar was a popular meeting point where impromptu outreach opportunities occurred. Interns were available to discuss our findings and marine mammal information with the public every day.
    • Safe whale watching regulations and rules charts were designed, printed and displayed at 6 piers and public points of marine departure in the region. The regulations and recommendations were also printed on stickers and water resistant guides and distributed to all visiting boats (private and public), and to every fishermen and guide departing from every pier and major marine point of departure by a project team member or the local harbor master. A minimum of 276 fishermen and boat operators received these regulations and a minimum of 568,102 visitors saw the regulations either before or during a boat-related excursion between January – April 2016.

Objective 2: We provided tour and sportfishing guides with training to offer informed, responsible marine wildlife tours.

    • 35 tour and fishing guides of Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and Barra de Potosi and la Majahua attended a two, two-day long informed whale watch and safe boat operation workshop. Attendees received on-water guidance and practice with experienced teachers and printed materials detailing safe boat practices and humpback whale and dolphin identification and behavior information. The group, along with a total of 40 additional guides and fishermen, received access to ongoing online resources and radio and phone support from our team from January – March 2016.
    • We developed a field guide of marine mammals and distributed to 50 fishermen who take tourists on marine tours
    • We offered free English classes twice per week during our field season and a weekly biology workshop at the library in Barra de Potosi. 25 adults and 20 children attended our English classes and workshops during the season. Upon completion of the field season, the foreign residents who live nearby and have been following the project began offering English classes to the residents and became involved with the local community. The foreign residents have collected sufficient funds to rebuild the bathrooms for the secondaria schools in the region and are providing scholarships for 25 children to attend preparatory (high) school in Zihuatanejo, as there is no high school in Barra de Potosi.
    • We helped groups of fishermen from 4 focus areas (Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, la Mahajua and Barra de Potosí) establish fixed pricing for marine ecotours offered by fishermen who attended safe whale watch workshop and supported fair and consistent rates offered to group by all members of the coop.
    • We publicized trained fishermen’s status as experts having completed the 2-day whale watch training program on social media (http://www.facebook.com/whalesinmexico), our website, on the radio, in local newspapers and in newsletters and community mailing lists used by foreign winter residents and visitors who go on boat tours.

Objective 3: We generated excitement and interest about marine mammals through educational outreach programs in order to inspire the local community to become voices for nature.

    • We exposed 200,000+ people to the presence of marine mammals in the region and invited them to participate in events intended support and protect the ocean through prominently displayed outreach material, traditional print media outlets, online and radio announcements. Activities included 20+ outreach and educational events at farmer’s markets, tourist events, radio programs (4), television news programs (2) and newspaper and magazine stories (6), along with 10 public outreach events within the village communities led the community-at-large to become aware of, and resultantly, proud of about their marine environment’s natural offerings.
    • Andy Wex and 35 students at Sandy High School’s biology class in Sandy, Oregon, competed against 30 students at Instituto Lizardi to identify humpback whale flukes and find potential resightings and compare to fluke catalogs from other regions where the humpbacks may have visited. Students received hands on scientific skills and helped to advance our research when they successfully matched humpback whale flukes to the internal catalog and external catalogs. Sandy High School succeeded in rematching more flukes and the class received rights to symbolically name and adopt a humpback whale – Our WGRP HB#_23.
    • Denise King, a senior exhibit developer and biologist from the hands-on science museum, The Exploratorium, in San Francisco, spent three weeks in Barra de Potosi doing hands-on science activities with the project team and community members. 100+ children and 200+ communities members participated in science programs including investigating microfauna found in the lagoon, on the shoreline and at sea under a microscopic projection which was projected onto a wall in the center of the village. Additional activities included close inspection of magnified and projected insects, bioluminescent creatures, science walks, mapping local flora in the village and a krill workshop.
    • We presented marine mammal and marine biodiversity programs to 1000+ schoolchildren at a minimum of 10 primaria, secondaria and library events in Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Juluchuca, La Mahajua and Barra de Potosi
    • We gave 50+ local educators the tools to transform kids into citizen scientists and committed Voices for Nature through the propagation of innovative hands-on teaching strategies
    • We generated and distributed marine mammal field guides, safe whale watch guidelines (in the form of banners, various handouts and stickers) and additional educational materials to over 1500 people between January – March 2016
    • 5 team members (including project director) lived with 5 host families between January - March in area of study to foster trust and opportunities for dialogue about marine conservation
    • We brought 60 children from the village of Barra de Potosí to see turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea. (None of the children had seen this before.)
    • We made five presentations about the project’s discoveries to Mexican and international audiences to grow awareness about the region’s marine mammals and wildlife.
    • We grew our Facebook audience from under 500 in March 2015 to 1500+ ‘likes’ by June 2016. We used this platform to disseminate safety recommendations, scientific discoveries, events and to foster interest in marine biology through marine mammal education opportunities.

Summer 2014 - Spring 2015 Accomplishments

1. We conducted 336 hours of humpback whale population and distribution studies in Playa Blanca, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa and Troncones between January - March 2015. We collected 63 individual flukes, saw 242 individual humpback whales. Out of the 242 whales we saw, 39 of them were calves. We recorded behavior, group size and composition, movement patterns and locations and listened for singing. We worked with 5 different local fishermen who already work or have an interest in being ecotour guides and taught them best practices for maneuvering their boats around whales. We made our daily discoveries available to all local people through our calendar and map of sightings in the area and shared on Facebook what we were finding out.

We had three great interns on our team this year - Joelle de Weerdt, Victoria Pouey Santalou and Andrea Garcia Chavez - and this is a big reason why we were able to collect so much more data this year.

Scientists and advisors, Mari Smultea, Dave Steckler, Fatima Castillejos Moguel and Luis Medrano Gonzalez came down to help us with our project this winter. Nico Ransome, the good folks at Cascadia Research Collective (John Calambokidis and Elana Dobson), and Fatima Castillejos Moguel, along with the Sandy High School Aquanauts Club, compared our fluke catalog to their own and we began to discover matches between our whales and theirs. In the end, we matched 19 out of our 24 tails from 2014 with whales that were seen in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Oaxaca, Banderas Bay, Southern California, Northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Most of our matches so far were made in Monterey Bay, Moss Landing and the Farallon Islands.

Thanks to our visiting scientists, we deepened our understanding of interpreting whale behavior, began collecting skin samples from whales that were sloughed off when they breached or tail lobbed to do DNA analysis on, we began using a powerful mapping and analysis program called Mysticetus and we began making almost real time discoveries as our whales traveling between our region and Oaxaca within a season.

2.) We had visits from guest educators, Andy Wex and Denise King, who, along with our interns conducted workshops, educational programs and events about marine mammals, biology, biodiversity and the sea. Kids got to look through a microscope for the first time and enthusiasm and with it, a stronger sense of stewardship toward the ocean, is growing as a result of our programs.

We held a series of official safe whale watch practice workshops in Barra de Potosi and Zihuatanejo and gave basic training to 26 boat operators who came to us wanting to learn more about humpback whales and dolphins and how to handle their boats well around them.

3.) Our Facebook page is taking off, with 797 followers as of April 2015, and we brought 60 people to the region who came as a result of our project. Some came through Oceanic Society volunteer vacation expeditions. Others were project supporters who wanted to see the place for themselves. This influx of ecotourism to the village brought much needed income and strenghtened the case for caring for the natural environment like it is a pristine natural treasure (which, of course, it is).

Winter 2013- Spring 2014 Accomplishments

studying1.) Whale Census
From January - March 2014, we conducted a baseline study of the endangered 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.

The study revolved around a whale watch census covering a 75-mile range. We collected 25 fluke ID shots in order to begin establishing an identification catalog, document cow/calf pairs, identify whale behaviors and mark locations between 8:30 AM – 2:30 PM five days per week. We conducted our work on the water with local fishermen who have shown a strong interest and aptitude for running whale watch guide services and taught them responsible on-water boat operations around humpback whales and the basics of humpback whale behavior. The fluke IDs are available digitally and in print and we are now working to match them with the larger Fluke Identification Project coordinated by NOAA’s SPLASH program and with fluke catalogs of populations which visit other areas along the North and Central American coast.

We consulted with Deep Blue Conservancy and ECOBAC in Puerto Vallarta to develop a reliable humpback whale photo identification technique and ensure we were following proper boat operation protocol around whales throughout the season.

In March 2014, scientists Mari Smultea and Dave Steckler visited the region and helped us to organize and analyze our data and developed a plan to return in 2015 for a cultural and Spanish language immersion program with a group of teenagers, consulted with us on the collection, organization and analysis of our data and helped us to create the expanded study parameters and protocol for 2015.

training2.) Local Business Development
A naturalist tour has begun to be developed with the guide fishermen which will run around the Morros, a small group of islands marking the boundary of Bahia de Petatlan. We identified species of interest and minimally invasive ecotourism opportunities at a beach where turtles lay eggs on the far side of the boundary, along the length of Playa Blanca and Playa Larga, and also investigated the lagoon behind the bay, salt flats and tropical thorn forest which make up the six distinct ecosystems in this one small area. Future marine ecotour clients will have opportunities to see up to four species of sea turtles, shore birds, aquatic birds, three types of dolphins, at least four types of rays, and to learn about the relationship between the estuary waters and the bay.

The project is designed to create partnerships and communication between ecologically responsible guide services and educational leaders nationally and worldwide. Knowledge creates interest and leads to involvement and a sense of ownership, which in turn inspires people to take action and care. By connecting local fishermen, village residents and the expatriate community with guest scientists, educators and environmentalists from Mexico and the US who can teach them about the area’s unique marine ecology, we hope to inspire residents and visitors of the area to become citizen scientists and conservationists.

outreach3.) Whale Awareness Outreach
In this vein, we held eight whale information workshops and events in a variety of formats for residents of the area (national and foreign) where they had opportunities to learn about the humpback whale study and findings, introduced to principles of safe whale watching and invited to participate as citizen scientists during the study. Pablo Mendizabal coordinated presentations and meetings in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa for the Department of Education, SEMARNAT, sportfishermen's coops, hoteliers, and other people of influence. In Barra de Potosi, we worked closely with the library, the kindergarten and the fishing and tourist coops through the local comisario and were successful in increasing interest in and awareness about hump
back whales and bolstered enthusiasm about the natural environment throughout the entire village.

Marine biology educator, Andrew Wex, visited the area for seven days in February to investigate the program for potential student involvement and data collection opportunities in 2015. Wex took foreigners and locals on a science walk of the area, gave a workshop at the library, reported back to his students and school board about the area and is planning on kidsreturning next year and keeping his students connected with the people, whales and marine wildlife in the area. Wex's class raised $900 to name and adopt one of the whales we identified this year and will be kept apprised about future whale sightings and information we may gather about "Ferdinand", aka Whale #23, as long as this project lasts.

We launched a Facebook page for the project which gained over 300 followers within the first two weeks. We posted wildlife sightings and project updates to the page. We designed brochures for local guides and gave them support and advice as requested for their marketing materials.


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