Looking for blue whales in Baja

Dear Friends,

Well, Baja 2023 was a tough one. We always set ourselves a high bar, and we got the job done. But it wasn’t easy.

We had three overall goals:

  1. To conduct focal follows of blue and fin whales. (This this entailed tagging a whale, collecting multiple Snot samples from it, and collecting photogrammetry and behavioral data.)
  2. To work with two different film crews to get the story of drone tagging out to the world.
  3. To work with James Fahlbusch from Jeremy Goldbogen’s lab at Stanford University, using our drone deploy system to attach a heart rate monitoring tag to blue and fin whales.

 

The tagging team

 

The big problem we faced this year was that the blue whales were just not in the waters off Loreto, either in the numbers we typically see or in the locations where we have seen them in the past. The Bahia de Loreto National Park was established specifically as a blue whale sanctuary, but this year we did not see a single blue whale in the park area. We don’t know why the blue whales were so scarce, but local fisherman had spotted a pod of migrating orcas in the area, and the speculation was that the orcas had driven the blue whales away. Otherwise, the biodiversity of the Gulf of California was obvious, with sightings of blue-footed boobies, bottlenose dolphins, mobula and manta rays, and hammerhead sharks.

Our first day on the water (with a film crew) we did not see a single blue or fin whale, just endless blue water. That night at the dock we were told that blue whales had been seen about 5 miles south of the park boundary.

The next day, we motored south for over two hours, then searched again for another hour before we saw and tagged a fin whale. I was stressed out by the lack of whales, but the film team said they liked the drama / tension (!!).

Tagging a blue whale

Day 3 was quite the adventure. We left the dock at 7:00 am heading south with the cameraman and director on our boat and the rest of the film crew on another boat. We found our first blue whale at 11:00 am and had a tag on the whale by 11:13. (Having now tagged 53 whales Chris is pretty good at this!) Soon after, we heard over the radio that the film team boat had broken down. While this stressed out the film team on both boats, they were safe, so we kept working. At 1:30 we put a heart rate tag on a blue whale, which came off after one dive cycle; we retrieved the tag, and at 3:40 we put this tag on another blue whale. By this time, our captain was concerned we might not have enough fuel to get back to port. We had to call a nearby boat that luckily was able to sell us 20 gallons of fuel, and we made it home safely. The film crew boat had to be towed back in, and they arrived only an hour before we did.

Using a VHF antenna to track a tag

Day 4 we went south again looking for and finding both the CATS and the heart rate tag that we had deployed on the previous day. Both tags gave us a general location from a satellite fix before we left the hotel in the morning; we then tracked them down with a VHF tracking antenna. These tags had been in the water overnight; imagine our stress with almost $30K worth of research equipment and priceless data just floating in the ocean.

After a day off we were back out on the water (with the second film crew) we headed south but and saw some whales but we did not get a tag on. Day 7 again we took out two hour plus commute South, and by midday we found a blue whale and successfully placed a heart rate tag on it. James put a 24-hour galvanic link release system on this tag (he’s a braver man than I am!). The tag actually stayed on for 27 hours, and the whale swam quite a long way away before the tag came off — 60 nautical miles from our location – the recovery of this tag is another great story!

A CATS tag ready to be deployed

After three days of bad weather and just two days left on expedition, we found a humpback close to the marina but had equipment problems and had to head back in. With the equipment fixed, we headed back out but weren’t able to find any whales. On our final day on the water, we collected blow from a humpback and conducted a great focal follow of a fin whale, tagging the whale and collecting both snot and photogrammetry data.

In summary then, we had 9 days on the water and we deployed six tags on two species of whales (4 long-duration sticks). Two of these attachments were heart rate tags, one on a blue whale and one on a fin. We conducted 14 SnotBot flights and collected 8 samples from three different species of whale (blue, fin, humpback). While we had to work really hard just to find the whales, the film crews loved the increased tension and both film crews got footage of us attaching tags on whales, so they were happy.

We were able to recover all but one deployed tag; unfortunately, the DTag that we put on a fin whale (on the last day) was never heard from again. We believe the tag may have failed during a unique surfacing and dive sequence by the fin whale—the greyhound of the sea. Before we lost the tag and the whale, we were able to collect blow and some incredible behavioral footage from the whale. We have our fingers crossed that someone in the Gulf of California finds and returns the tag so we can add to our incredible tagging data set. We’re excited to take a deep dive over the coming weeks into the data we collected, and we can’t wait to hear if we were able to record the heartbeat of both a blue and a fin whale by a drone deployed tag.  We will keep you posted!

Fair winds and a following sea.

Iain

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