For Katherina Audley, saving whales means more than just preserving a majestic species that delights and amazes its two-legged, land-lubbing neighbors. In Mexico, Audley’s involvement with the marine mammals also signifies scientific documentation, public education, economic development and community vibrancy.
The founder of the non-profit Whales of Guerrero Research Project, Audley recently spoke with FNS at Zihuatanejo’s Ecotianguis Sanka, a weekly farmer’s and artisan’s market, about the different dimensions of her group’s work dedicated to whales- especially the migratory humpback- that appear off the coast of Guerrero state every winter. “My favorite thing is to see a sleeping whale,” Audley quipped. “It’s pretty cool when you are around animals that are relaxed.”
A former commerical fisher in Alaska who has also worked at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum, Audley counts 15 years as a dedicated whale watcher.
A busy woman who divides her time between Oregon and Guerrero, Audley began visiting the Mexican state’s Costa Grande nearly two decades ago. Going back in memory lane, she recalled the big fish (now not as plentiful) she would see in the ocean. “It really impressed me. I thought this was a really rich wonderland. It had not been studied. Now it has,” Audley said.
Audley’s life in Guerrero became focused on the village of Barra de Potosi, a settlement located on a lagoon that connects to the sea that is a short jaunt from Zihuatanejo. She remembered how waves of woe hit the village about seven years ago when narco-relatedviolence and the scare over the H1H virus drove away visitors.
“Everyone went into a panic about tourism going down,” Audley recalled. Later, Audley said she fully grapsed the importance of tourism to the economic well-being of Barra de Potosi, when about 80 people attended her wedding and spent enough money to allow locals to resume personal projects and “fix their roofs and pay debts.”
Nowadays, the nomadic Oregonian is immersed in a project laying the groundwork for an expanded eco-tourism business that’s aimed at sustaining Barra de Potosi as well as benefiting other communities in the region. If all goes according to plan, more nature-loving visitors will spend money with boat operators, guides, restaurateurs, taxi and bus drivers, and other locals. “The idea is that local people own this project as much as the scientists,” Audley stressed.
Audley regards the spectacular humpback whale as “the ambassador” of the big four species-dolphins, sea turtles, rays and whales-that visitors can observe, marvel and photograph on boat trips to the tropical Pacific waters of the region.
As part of Whales of Guerrero’s ongoing work, Audley and crew sponsor workshops and hands-on excursions to train local boat and tourism operators in the proper way of whale watching as spelled out by a 2010 regulation (NOM-131) promulgated by Mexico’s Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources.
Twenty seven tour operators and others based in the greater Zihuatanejo area have completed training; many are listed on Whales in Guerrero’s Facebook page.
For good measure, Whales of Guerrero has posted a banner at Zihuatanejo’s municipal pier that lays out the best practices of whale watching, including the angle of approach and speed of the boat, the proper distance to maintain between the craft and the cetacean and the optimum amount of time to spend near the creatures. Since many of the humpbacks found in the Mexican Pacific this time of year are mothers with calves, whale-watching is an endeavor that should not be taken lightly.
“Never follow a whale exactly behind it,” the banner advises. “This is aggressive and intimidating for the whale and can cause the whale and the operator to be hurt or molested.”
Individually distinguished by their tail markings, humpbacks range in length from 46 to 55 feet and can weigh between 33 and 44 tons.
Audley agreed with other long-time Mexico whale watchers that the 2015-2016 humpback season has been a frustrating one, with far fewer of the creatures showing themselves off at the normal times, likely due to the large El Nino that’s maintained water temperatures warmer than the humpback’s liking.
This writer experienced the same issue last month up the Pacific Coast in Puerto Vallarta, where humpbacks are usually seen in abundance along the city’s Malecon every January. This season, however, this writer spotted only one specimen.
“The whales are missing. Nobody knows where they are,” Audley mulled, adding that her group’s spottings have been down to about two a day. “You have to work to find animals.”
According to Audley, the humpbacks that come to Mexico between the months of November and March for the purposes of breeding and birthing hail from two sub-groups that spend the rest of the year eating up north. The first group frequents the waters between California’s Monterrey Bay and British Columbia, while the second inhabits the Pacific of southern California and migrates as far south as Central America.
Despite the dearth of spottings this year, Audley said the overall state of the Mexican humpback population is in postive drive, with both sub-groups that come south growing at a population rate of 7 percent per year. “It’s a happy story,” she said, crediting Mexico’s official protection of whales.
Besides developing a marine-based ecotourism, Whales in Guerrero collaborates with Mexican and international scientists, college interns and others in counting and documenting the humpback population.
From the beginning of their count in 2014 until late January 2016, Whales of Guerrero tallied more than 600 individual whales in 336 sightings, Audley reported. This year the Guerrero humpback counters plan to continue their work until March 18.
If watching and counting whales were not enough to keep Whales in Guerrero fully occupied, staff devote time to public education and giving interactive presentations to local schoolchildren. As a not-for-profit organization, the organization depends on civil society contributions to futher its work.
Of course, the pressing question is how climate change will impact the humpback and other whale species.
On this note, Audley attended a recent scientific conference in San Francisco, where she said concerns were raised about how the melting of the polar icecaps could lead to whales being stricken by oil tankers now having passage into previously unaccessible waters laden with petroleum resources.