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Whale of a tale: How a Mexican fishing village found ownership of its cetaceans

National Geographic Explorer Katherina Audley of the Whales of Guerrero Research Project continues her report of how the folk of Barra de Potosí, a tiny fishing village located in Southwest Pacific Mexico, discovered and became entranced with the whales and dolphins off their coast. She explains the techniques she and her colleagues used to hook the interest of the children, then the wider community, and how the village started developing a pride of ownership of the marine mammals. 

Scientists get to see the most incredible things. Fieldwork is generally long, hard and tedious. But for every hundred hours in the field, 1-5 of those hours will be spent observing wondrous phenomena that change the way we perceive the world. These moments drive scientists to double down on their conservation commitments.

Sadly, many of these experiences are shared only during coffee breaks at science conferences and in inscrutably written peer-reviewed publications. As a result, many former paradises which scientists surveyed years ago have been decimated before the wider public could know about them. How might this outcome differ if such moments of wonder and awe could be felt more broadly?

I committed to running a whale survey to which the entire village would have front row seats — and opportunities to fully participate in. Villagers would collect rigorous data alongside early career scientists. Instead of sharing their experiences over coffee at conferences, villagers and scientists would trade stories over tacos and maybe a beer on the beach. All would be welcome on our research boat and our sightings would be mapped daily on a big map and calendar in the center of the village.

Knowing that great science communicators can spark passion for nature in their audiences like lightning, I invited skilled educators down for residencies to take locals on “science walks”, give presentations about their scientific observations of the region, and hopefully spark a hands-on science movement in the schools.

Andy Wex, a high-school science teacher from Oregon known for his talent for inspiring kids to fall in love with nature, joined us for a week, taking kids on science walks to show them the world through a biologist’s eyes. Photographer: Katherina Audley

Amazingly, it worked! My Spanish was poor and my DSLR fluke-photography skills worse. Thankfully, my able captain, Arturo Mellín, had a lot of experience working with inept, well-meaning Gringos. Together, we figured it out. Over the course of our first ten-week study (300 hours on the water in all), we had 47 encounters with groups of whales ranging from one to five individuals. We saw about 77 different whales and collected 25 beautiful fluke IDs to begin looking for matches in catalogs to the north and south of us.

Arturo Mellin and me, assisted by volunteer Anthony Kaulfuss and visiting scientists and educators, collected our first 300 hours of data together during a 300-hour field survey in 2014. Photographer: Katherina Audley

We also identified three types of dolphins, including the little-known rough-toothed dolphin, and at least four different types of rays. We also spotted sea turtles most days, and there was an observation of  a mystery whale (perhaps a minke or Bryde’s whale). We further noted the ebb and flow of fantastically varied bird life around the Morros and beyond. Fishermen hopped aboard our vessel to hear the whales sing through our hydrophone and speaker. In short, we began to establish that there was great potential for marine ecotourism.

Rough-toothed dolphins are incredibly smart and curious animals. They gave us the sensation that they were studying us with as much interest as we were studying them. Photographer: Katherina Audley

The best part of each day was when the village kids would bound up to the boat upon our return, shouting, “How many whales? How many whales?” And then they would walk in procession with me to the village to mark our daily numbers on the public charts.

Each day after the survey, the kids processed to the calendar and map in the center of the 3-street village to mark down how many whales we saw and where we spotted them. Photographer: Kathrin Jaeger

The kids were so keen that I couldn’t resist offering weekly workshops in the tiny library. We learned to play naturalist, collecting data, listening to whale songs and matching flukes of whales from larger catalogs from Puerto Vallarta and California.

We began running weekly workshops at the library about marine wildlife soon after the project began. I didn’t anticipate that this would be such a teaching intensive project, but the kids demanded it and I was very happy to comply! Photographer: Kathrin Jaeger

A new mystery

When I began, I had assumed our migratory humpback whales were members of the Banderas Bay group with a bit of wanderlust. But most of the whales we saw early on in the season were traveling south in a hurry. So now,the new question was WERE these whales in fact a part of the Banderas Bay population? Or were they part of a little known or unknown group in Oaxaca or Costa Rica? Nicaragua? Somewhere else? The 25 tail-IDs would provide the first clues to unlocking this mystery.

Locals were clearly into it

By March 2014, the village was full of kids zipping around on their bikes singing whale songs. Also just about any kid soon was able to demonstrate a solid breach, fin slap, tail lob or spy hop for you. The whale workshops we gave in the library and kindergarten along with lots of hammock and taco time with families in the evenings got villagers hooked on finding out how many whales we spotted each day. Fishermen started calling us when they saw whales.

Meanwhile, Arturo had become an expert in safe boat operation around humpback whales and also become well-versed in basic humpback whale biology and behavior. After a season together, I was confident that he would always maneuver a boat with the utmost responsibility around whales and dolphins and would share his expertise with the other guides.

A number of other village tour guides began studying English for the first time to make interacting with visitors easier, which told me they believed in the potential of ecotourism. Various village families hosted members of our team, which fostered deep cultural interchange, and village women became project stakeholders. People who helped us a lot with whale spotting, or did their part to make our events run smoothly and the kids who came to workshops, and were truly stellar participants, were given the opportunity to name and adopt one of the whales we photo-identified. (These new whale patrons became the first to be straining their eyes at the horizon, hoping to spot “their” whales when they returned the following year.)

Overall, the project brought a new sense of appreciation for the richness of nature in this area to the local community and it inspired them to recognize/discern/perceive value in protecting and promoting it. The seeds were planted. The soil was good. This project wanted to grow, I wanted it to grow. But most importantly, the villagers wanted it to grow.

Photographer: Katherina Audley

Katherina Audley has participated in whale research projects around the world since 1997. Since 2013, she has led a cooperative research, ecotourism and environmental education program in Barra de Potosí that reaches 100,000 people each year. Katherina received a National Geographic Conservation Trust grant in 2015. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at: http://www.whalesinmexico.com

Find out how to get a National Geographic research grant.

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