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Lo Que Hemos Aprendido

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Issue: 13 Section: Features Geography: Latin America Argentina Topics: habitat

January 13, 2004

Lo Que Hemos Aprendido

The Right Whale Program of Peninsula Valdes

by Amanda Jernigan

Each September, right whales gather off the coast of Peninsula Valdes in Argentina's Chubut province. Since 1971, researchers have gathered there, as well: an unlikely group of biologists, conservationists, and whale-lovers, engaged in one of the world's longest-running studies of a marine mammal population. This past September, photographer John Haney and I spent a week on Peninsula Valdes, and got a window into the history of this study, onshore and off.

Photographs by John Haney

Substitute camera for harpoon, and Iain Kerr is one part Ahab, one part Ishmael.

Vice-president of Ocean Alliance, a conservation organization based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Kerr is Ishmael in that he is a brilliant raconteur. Over the course of this trip he has regaled us with tales of his courtship with his wife, of their adoption of a mongrel dog on the coast of Alaska, of his swimming with a sperm whale in the Indian Ocean, and of his coming upon a plane wreck in the Colombian Andes while adventuring with a frenchman named Jean-Paul. Now Kerr has taken us along on his evening's whale-watch, and his desire to get a good photograph is bringing out the Ahab in him. As we're motoring out into the belly of Golfo San Jose, he says to Diego Taboada, at the tiller, "All right. Now what I want is a whale breaching, while giving birth, backlit by the sunset." He is half-joking. "The fact remains," he says to me, "that if you want to capture people's hearts and souls about these animals, the best way to do that remains through photography." He adjusts the f-stop on his telephoto lens. "There!" he exclaims, spotting a fluke in the distance, and off we go.

All day we've been watching from land the group of right whales that congregates, May through December, in Golfo San Jose. Some five or six hundred creatures come to this peninsula to calve, mate, and raise their young. Far out, we'd see in silhouette a whale hurling its 40 tonnes into the air, then crashing down into the water. We'd watch the breach take place in eery silence; the sound of the impact would reach us several seconds later, like thunder, over the bay. Now, out in the zodiac, I am haunted by thoughts of what that crash-landing would do to this fifteen-foot boat. "Um, Iain," I say, as a nearby trio of whales dives, showing us their flukes one after another, "is there any way to tell when a whale is going to breach?"

"They tend to dive first," he says, digging in his camera bag for another roll of film. "Rather like that, actually." He gestures at the 'footprints' left by the submerged trio.

"Shouldn't we, um, get out of here?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Once they go under, it's best not to move. If we stay still, they'll know where we are."

That's just what I'm afraid of.

"If they know where we are, they'll avoid us," he says.

Avoid us?

Kerr reassures me that, although there have been close calls, no scientist - or photographer - has ever, to his knowledge, been breached upon; in fact, there are stories of whales going to great lengths to keep from upsetting a boat.

Debbe Crandall, an environmentalist from Bolton, Ontario, came to Peninsula Valdes to see the right whales in 1991."'I was walking along the beach one night,'"she told me, "sort of stumbling." (The beach is made of polished pebbles, which can make for difficult walking, though Crandall confessed she'd had a glass or two of wine.) "I got thinking about it: here are these creatures, and we've harassed them and harpooned them, propellered and polluted them. We've practically hunted them to extinction, and yet they'll swim right up to the boat and treat it as gently as if it's their baby. They're so tolerant of us. I got a little maudlin," she admitted. "I was quite teary-eyed."

'Quite pie-eyed,' said her sister, whod been listening in.


Too old to hang out with their mothers but too young to mate, the adolescent right whales are the most avid people-watchers. They will sidle up next to the loitering zodiac and raise their heads out of the water to have a look at us. Mariano Sironi is in the final stages of a doctoral dissertation on the social development of these young whales. He's piloting the zodiac today, and he knows these creatures as if he had grown up with them - which, in some sense, he has. We are nervous observers of his careful dance with this 40-foot-long adolescent. Again and again, with slow deliberation, the whale approaches the boat. In the instant before he touches us, Sironi moves the boat away. The whale dips under, wheels around with surprising agility, and approaches us again. "Shall we let him touch us?" Sironi asks. "Let's take a vote." There is a chorus of abstentions. Sironi holds his ground. The whale approaches. "Ramming speed?" says one of us, half joking. We brace ourselves. The great head goes under, then gives us the gentlest poke.

"Did he touch us?"

"I don't know. Did you feel it?"

Satisfied, the young whale swims away.

It is a fact widely recognized but seldom discussed that the novelty of whale-watching is not so much the experience of watching the whales as it is the experience of being watched by them. The mutual curiosity that exists between an adolescent right whale and a boatful of human observers makes whale-watching an activity of an entirely different nature than, say, bird-watching - or even people-watching. Sarah Haney of the Canadian Whale Institute has been a supporter of the Right Whale Program for over a decade. The first time she came to Peninsula Valdes, a whale approached her zodiac. As he swam past the boat, he kept his gaze fixed on her. She still remembers the glimpse she caught of the white of his swivelled eye. "When you look at the eye of a fish or shark, it's slate-grey, dead-looking," she says. "Whales are different. When you look a whale in the eye it's like looking at a dog or another person. There's a feeling of connection."

Vicky Rowntree, director of the Right Whale Program, prefers to observe the whales from land. Almost every morning, she takes her backpack, stocked with notebook, spyglass, water and food, and makes the hike out from the research station, along the tawny cliff which lines the bay, to the 'cliff hut' - little more than a sheet-metal wind-break, constructed by scientist Roger Payne in the 1970s. If the weather is fair, she sits outside, often with her legs dangling over the precipice, the spyglass propped between her knees. She'll focus on a group of whales, and she'll watch -- for hours, sometimes. "The spyglass is great because it focuses you," she says. "It's like you've gone through this tunnel into the world of the whales. If you watch for long enough, you begin to anticipate what they will do."

Most often Rowntree fixes the spyglass on a mother-calf pair. The mothers seem to use the shallow waters of this bay to shield their calves from predators: orcas, sea lions. In five-metre water, the girth of a mother whale forms an effective blockade. In recent years, however, the mothers have proved unable to protect their calves from a new threat. An inflated population of gulls, nurtured on fish-processing waste from nearby Puerto Madryn, has discovered a new food supply: a gull will land on the back of a surfaced whale and rip at its flesh and blubber. The whale will thrash about, go under; the gull will circle around and wait for the whale to resurface, then attack again. Most of the whales that Rowntree spots from the cliffs these days bear open wounds along their backs.

The mother whales don't eat while they are in the nursery ground. They try to keep still, to conserve their resources of blubber and mother's milk. (The calves, on the other hand, love to cavort. A calf will hump up onto the back of the sleeping mother, breach onto her, cover her blowhole with his tail. All this she bears with extraordinary calm.) The real concern about the gull attacks is that, in evading the gulls, the mothers may be expending the energy they need to nurse their calves and to make the trip back to their summer feeding grounds.


By sea and by land the scientists make their observations. Then there is John Atkinson, who observes the whales by air. Each September he makes the trek by plane from Toronto to Buenos Aires, then from Buenos Aires to Trelew, and finally, by truck, from Trelew to the town of Piramides, where he rendezvouses with a crew of apprenticing pilots from the Argentine navy. He'll spend the next three days, if the weather co-operates, hanging from a harness out of an eight-seater navy plane, taking photographs of whales from an altitude of 300 feet.

Atkinson is a veteran traveller and a closet writer. He has four unpublished novels stashed away. He's published children's books in English and in Spanish. I ask him how he wound up working as an aerial photographer.

"My main qualification is that I don't get airsick," he says. "And I seem to take pretty good pictures."

Aerial surveys have been part of the research program at Peninsula Valdes for 32 years. Because the heads of right whales bear distinguishing patches of rough skin, called callosities, a good overhead view allows scientists to recognize an individual whale, year after year. The scientists on Peninsula Valdes have compiled a database of information on over 1800 individuals. In recent years, computer mapping has allowed them to quantify this visual data, and to compare it with data gathered on right whale populations in Brazil. Initial comparisons show that a few whales have moved back and forth between the two populations. In coming years, comparisons may be extended to the catalogues compiled by scientists working in South Africa and Australia.

Kerr, Rowntree, Sironi, Atkinson. I gradually come to know this population of researchers, which returns year after year to Peninsula Valdes in an ironic mirroring of the whales. The unlikely group that's present at the research station when I visit is rounded out by Luciano Valenzuela, a soft-spoken Argentinian who is beginning a study on the factors affecting group formation of whales in the nursery ground. I also meet Roxana and Diego Taboada, the husband-wife team that has been the driving force behind the formation of the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas, a Buenos-Aires-based organization which promotes whale conservation in Argentina. (Over the course of the past few years, the Taboadas have weathered their country's economic collapse, raised two small children, and still managed to turn the Right Whale Program from an American-driven, top-down research effort into a vital, grassroots organization which combines local expertise with international interest, environmental goals with economic demands, and academic research with conservation and education.) The final members of this right-whale team are Sarah Haney and Alan Calderwood of the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI).

Spend a week with these people, and you begin to realize that the behaviour patterns evident in the human population of Peninsula Valdes are as complicated as those evident in the whale population. There are politics upon politics. The property on which the research station is located belongs to the Argentine navy. It is leased to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which in turn permits the Right Whale Program to do its work. The Right Whale Program is affiliated with the Whale Conservation Institute (WCI), a branch of Ocean Alliance, and also with the Taboadas' Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB). The program is funded in large part by the CWI, and is a member of the South American Marine Mammal Working Group (SAMMWG). This stew of acronyms has been a hotbed of competing interests and conflicting approaches, all complicated by the interests and approaches of outside groups: the whale-watching industry, fishermen, the Argentine government, and other groups of scientists, studying armadillos, guanacos, gulls. But Rowntree and the Taboadas have proved masters of diplomacy; perhaps their background in animal-behaviour research stands them in good stead. When I leave the peninsula, they are preparing for a conference which will bring together right whale researchers and conservationists from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. Valenzuela is helping Rowntree translate her lecture from English into Spanish. Roxana Taboada is distributing educational posters to local whale-watching tourists and guides.

All week, I have been meaning to ask someone about the connection between research biology and conservation. At the end of the day, when all of the aerial surveys have been completed, the observations taken down, and the callosity patterns recorded and compared, are we really any closer to restoring this ocean? Any less likely to continue our oftentimes unwitting assault on the natural world? Are these whales better off for our efforts?

As a parting gift -- and as if in answer to my question -- Roxana Taboada gives us a copy of her poster. Printed in large script across the bottom of the poster is the motto of the ICB: Solo podemos amar lo que conocemos, conocer lo que entendemos y entender lo que hemos aprendido; We can only love that which we know, know that which we understand, and understand that which we have learned. I'm guessing that love does not get mentioned in Rowntree's research papers about the whales of Golfo San Jose, but it is implied in the quiet intensity with which she speaks about these whales, and with which she works on their behalf. There is, perhaps, an unstated prefix to the ICB motto: It is only that which we love that we desire to preserve.

* * *

Amanda Jernigan currently lives and writes in Sackville, New Brunswick. She is a contributing editor of The New Quarterly and of Canadian Notes & Queries.

John Haney's photographs have been exhibited in New Brunswick and Ontario. The images included here are part of a larger body of work examining human and animal life on Peninsula Valdes.

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