Solving a Whale Mystery
With Temporary Tattoos, Ecotourism and Local Communities
by Levi Novey and Katherina Audley
I asked Katherina Audley, the founder and leader of The Whales of Guerrero Research Project to answer some questions about her work. The project aims to cultivate an ethos of stewardship through citizen science and educational outreach in local communities on the western Mexican coast, where wildlife is rich and abundant but in need of conservation.
Novey: How did you become interested in starting a project focused on protecting humpback whales in Guerrero?
Audley: This project is a serendipitous way for me to apply my most strongly developed skills for the things I care most about. My three great interests in life are: whales, the ocean and Mexico. The skills I have developed over the years are: connecting people with each other, being resourceful and resilient and making things happen through communication.
Here is how the project came to be:
In the late ‘90s, I started visiting Barra de Potosi, the village where my project operates. I spent most of my time fishing and scuba diving. I was blown away by the density and diversity of wildlife in the region, particularly in the sea. You couldn’t wade in the surf without fish whacking against your ankles, and you could see big fish in every 3rd or 4th wave. Huge schools of fish ran up and down the beach every day and birds and dolphins followed. And the scuba diving was, of course, also great. I became friends with a number of locals in the village, who told me that the fishing was nothing compared to what it had been in the ‘80s and before.
Fifteen years later, two things had happened. Cartel violence and the H1N1 virus had scared away tourism from the area. And desperate locals, along with unmonitored large scale commercial fishing operations, were overfishing the region at such a rate that it was becoming rare to have a good day of fishing at all.
In 2009, I got married on the beach near Barra de Potosi. 80 friends and family members came from around the world to celebrate with us for a week. I noticed what a difference 80 people made to the community. They bought guacamole and tacos, local art, and stayed in local accommodations. My friends in the village were able to pay off debts, buy school supplies for their kids, and fix their roofs thanks to my wedding. It felt good to help the community and I wanted to do more.
In 2010 and 2011, I wrote a series of stories about the area for The Oregonian and other smaller outlets. Again, these efforts gave the region an infusion of tourist dollars. Here’s one of those stories.
After that, I decided I wanted to do something more lasting for this place I had grown to care about so much, to give it a long term boost. I saw that what the region has is beautiful nature and their greatest resource was in danger of being destroyed due to overexploitation because of poverty. I decided to start a project that would showcase the nature of the area and bring in the kind of nature-loving ecotourists that help and motivate communities to protect and support the health of the local ecology.
I had seen whales in Guerrero every winter that I had visited and dolphins every time I had been there. Since whales and dolphins are my biggest passion (I have traveled all over the world to study them for the past 20+ years), I thought I would start with them. I quickly found out that the humpback whales that visit Guerrero every winter had never been studied before, and that the locals did not know what kind of whale they are, why they come there, where they go, when they leave, or how interesting and intelligent humpback whales are.
This inspired the project’s seminal idea: to begin a community-driven research project about humpback whales.
I would bring in scientists who were passionate about educating and communicating their knowledge publicly to work alongside local fishermen who had an interest in ecotourism and conservation. My plan was to conduct a rigorous study of the humpback whales that visit every year that could be shared with the global science community to fill in a knowledge gap and to make sure that everything we found out was discovered in partnership with the local community, so that they would end up with the deepest knowledge and awareness about the marine mammals in their region.
I knew if I wanted to give this region a long-term, sustainable boost in well-being, I would need to do two things simultaneously: 1) Find out what animals of interest live there and understand how they use the environment and what their current threats are and 2) motivate and inspire the people who share the environment with these animals to see themselves as their guardians and protectors. We do a huge amount of public education, informally and formally and every piece of data we collect is shared publicly and collected in partnership with the local community. We also bring in ecotourism to the area through Oceanic Society expeditions, and raise awareness about the cool animals that live in our local ocean both locally and worldwide.
And so, although whales are the thing that I never really get tired of thinking about, they really are ambassadors for an entire ecosystem. Because when the whales win, everyone wins.
Novey: How did local communities react when you approached them with your idea?
Audley: The key to this project’s success so far has been to listen more than talk and ask the community what they want and need, rather than telling them what I think they should do. The first year, and every year after, one very important element of our project has been to live with a host family in the village and to have all of the project’s interns do the same. I spend a lot of time attending meetings about tourism, fishing, the art coop, and other concerns, just to listen and learn about what people are interested in and worried about and to think about how I can support them.
In 2013, when the project started, it was just me, with a volunteer helping me out for one of the three months I was down there living in the village. I was lucky because I already had friendships with people in the village, and had a reputation as a person who cares about the place and loves to bring people in, through my wedding, newspaper and magazine stories, and just for vacation. So people knew who I was and trusted me.
I told people I wanted to study the whales, support an increase in responsible, sustainable ecotourism and provide educational programs for kids and adults about nature. I went to fishing coop meetings and invited all of the fishermen to come with me on the boat with my captain, a local fisherman who is respected in the community, and study whales with us whenever they wanted. I did workshops with the kids in the local library about the whales one-two times every week.
The whale songs were a big part of what raised interest for people. Some fishermen had heard whales sing through the hull of their boats before or when they were spearfishing at night, but no one really knew anything about it and most fishermen felt afraid when they heard the singing. We recorded the whales singing and played the songs for everyone in the village and very quickly, all of the kids in the village were riding their bikes around the village singing whale songs!
The first year, a handful of fishermen showed up to go on the boat with us and a core group of about 10 kids came to the library every week. When I asked the community what they thought would be the best thing I could do to help the ocean become healthier and to support the community in having better lives, people told me to focus on the kids and not to forget the women.
I took their advice and the following year, we doubled our educational efforts and worked with the women artists who make handmade crafts. They started making whale and dolphin themed art, based on pictures we took of the animals. They also learned some English words so that they could sell their art more easily to visitors and had little markets when we had an expedition. That second year, many more people attended our workshops, kids were always waiting for us at the library and ecotourism began to increase.
Last year was our third year, and it felt really different. As soon as I arrived in the village, my phone started ringing with whale spotting reports, and local people started sharing their long term ideas about what they thought we could do to take better care of the ocean and make sure whale watching is a responsibly run activity.
So now, it is my job to show up and finish this five-year study we started 3 years ago and keep holding the space for real conservation and sustainable ecotourism to set roots in the community.
Novey: Since the project started, how have people in the communities been involved?
Audley: I hire local fishermen to be our captains and help us find whales five days a week for ten weeks every year. But the understanding is that they are more than just captains — they are full contributing members of the team. Every time we give a talk in a scientific meeting or publish anything, they are named as co-authors, alongside our interns.
We have a whale spotting network that we depend on to find out where the whales are. People who call us the most to report whale sightings get to adopt a whale and name it. And then, when I find the whale in a catalog from somewhere else or find out it has been spotted along the Mexican coast or in California, Oregon or Washington, the whale patron is the first to find out.
The kids who are the biggest champions of nature, who show up for all of the workshops and take a real interest in marine biology also get to adopt a whale at the end of the season, along with host families and other people who demonstrated being good friends of nature. At first, the community didn’t really understand what it meant to get to name a whale, but now, three years later, it is a big and exciting deal! And every time I visit, people want to know if their whales have been spotted.
The tourism coop and the fishing coops decide what the priorities should be, in terms of how we can help them as stewards of the ocean. They asked for more in-depth, safe whale watch programs last year, and so we gave them to them. We also made them marine mammal guides and posters to use and refer to. We spend a lot of time hanging out with fishermen who also work as tour guides during the winter season, hearing their thoughts and answering questions about marine mammals and wildlife.
The women make art and also make lunch for our team every day. We live with host families in the village and get to enjoy meals and spend time with most of the families in the village while we are there, which brings the whole community together and on board to protect the ocean.
Now that the project is 3+ years old, I am spending more time connecting with the bigger cities of Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and Petatlan, and spending time also in villages such as la Mahajua near Troncones and Juluchuca. We work with kids, fishermen, local thought leaders, and government officials, as we need everyone to work together if we are going to help improve the state of the local ocean. The fishermen and guides of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are generally very keen to attend our safe whale watch programs as well, and also appreciate the big posters we hang every season at all of the marinas about best boat practices when approaching a whale.
Now we go to a different school in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa every week and teach three classes in a row about marine biodiversity.
We also go to the local farmer’s market in Zihuatanejo and put up a stall about whales and play whale songs and show pictures to local people and talk with people about what kinds of animals live in the ocean around here.
The port captain and the Navy have donated the use of their lighthouse and their meeting rooms for us to set up a land-based field station and to have our whale watch workshops.
Owners of cafes and restaurants and hotels have donated accommodations, meals, and held fundraisers for us so that we can continue our work.
Foreign residents who live on the beach have donated money to our project every year so that we can continue and also call our whale spotting hotline when they spot whales.
NONE of our exciting progress in 2016 would have been possible without the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grant. Thanks to USFWS, we were able to bring five scientists and educators to our study region in 2016. These experts helped us to set up a land-based field station where we began to gather data on boat/whale interactions in order to determine the most needed course of actions in terms of future training and awareness programs. Our educators had the village kids collecting insects, interesting plants and bioluminescent plankton from the lagoon.
One of the best things we did in 2016 was an official two-day safe whale watch workshop in Zihuatanejo. We brought experts from ECOBAC (also a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mexico Program grantee) in Puerto Vallarta down to Zihuatanejo to share their expertise with our local fishermen about best whale watch practices. It was a rigorous course; we spent one 10-hour day in the classroom learning everything about whales from their anatomy and behavior to what role they play in the food web. Our colleagues from Puerto Vallarta ECOBAC were great teachers and I was amazed that 35 fishermen paid 200 pesos a person to come to the workshop and miss two days of work during the high season to learn about whales. The timing was perfect for this workshop, as people had asked for it the year before and I was so pleased to see that packed classroom and to fill two boats up with fishermen on the second day as we found a pair of whales and got to practice our new skills in the field. The travel, lodging and honorariums, along with the printed materials were paid for by the grant. (The navy donated their space for us to use during the classroom day, fishermen donated the use of their boats and the department of ecology paid for the coffee break; it truly was a community supported event!)
Novey: Wow! It’s impressive that fishermen are so on board. There’s obviously a large amount of interest that has been generated. Are these fishermen currently offering whale watching tours?
Audley: Yes! You can see the names and contact information for all of the fishermen who came to our workshop last winter, and see pictures of the fishermen from the community of Barra de Potosi here. The grant we received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also covered the coast of printing all of our outreach materials in 2016. This included laminated safe whale watch regulation cards and stickers. It was noteworthy that fishermen actually ASKED us if we could make stickers and handouts like these, outlining the recommended and legal regulations regarding how to best handle a boat around a whale. The reason for this is because tourists sometimes want the driver to get closer to a whale than they should, and wanting the tourist to have a good experience, they feel pressure to comply. With stickers and these cards on hand, the boat operators have the opportunity to educate the guests and demonstrate responsibility. We also made whale sighting posters, certificates for guides who attended our safe whale watch workshops, and field guides about the marine mammals in our region. All of the guides are proud of these certificates and have them either framed in their homes or carefully maintained in their boats.
Novey: What are the challenges that still remain in Guerrero to make whale-watching safe for whales and a viable economic activity for community members?
Audley: Last year was a very strange year for whales in Mexico, as the whales simply did not show up! We suspect it was due to El Niño (which made the water uncomfortably warm for the whales) and also because there was a baby boom the year before, so new calves and their moms would have stayed north to find food instead of coming down to breed and calve again that winter. So, the undependable and relatively small number of whales in our region, compared to Hawaii and Banderas Bay means that whale watching will never be a 100% guaranteed activity.
We always worry about people ‘loving the whales to death’, meaning too many boats approaching the whales too quickly and irresponsibly.
Right now, the trained group of whale watching fishermen are working together well to provide one agreed upon fixed price for whale watching. But there is a risk of people undercutting people in prices, which will devalue the activity and cause strife.
And of course, while now Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa and Barra de Potosi are safe and in a relatively peaceful period, tourists still worry about safety in Mexico. If violence erupts in our immediate region, it will do real damage to the base of ecotourism we are working to develop.
Novey: Whales of Guerrero hosts “plankton nights” in villages. In one explanation, you quote a colleague who talks about her desire to discuss “uncharismatic microfauna” rather than “big, loud, floppy whales.” Why emphasize plankton rather than whales?
Audley: We actually have impromptu movie nights and slide shows in the village a number of times every season, and they almost always feature whales, dolphins and other cool natural events we are seeing. We make movies with the villagers about nature, and interview them to find out what they think about nature, why they think it matters and what excites them most about the sea. People love seeing themselves on film and many people who live in the village have never seen a whale or dolphin before, despite living right next to the ocean!
One of the guest scientists who has come down for the past two years is Denise King, an exhibit developer from the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. I worked at the Exploratorium for five years from 1998–2003. Bob Miller, one of the emeritus exhibit developers at the museum used to take us on ‘light walks’ where we would walk around outside, and using our hands and very simple tools, such as pieces of cut out cardboard, would teach us how light works. These walks changed the way I see the world forever. Another thing I learned at the Exploratorium was when we had a visiting guest scientist or artist, instead of telling them what we wanted them to do, we invited them to share with us whatever they were most interested in at the moment. I learned about so many interesting and unusual things as a result from those special guests, and also learned that passion trumps everything when someone is giving a talk.
My goal is for the local community to know how amazing nature is, and to be aware that there are wonderful natural events occurring outside their door at every moment. Breaching whales, porpoising dolphins, roseate spoonbills, sailfish and marlin — these are spectacular sights to see! But Denise King’s fascination is with plankton and microfauna, and this is what she likes to build exhibits about at the Exploratorium. She scooped up plankton and projected it onto the wall of the kindergarten at night and it was thrilling to look out and see the village in their plastic Corona beach chairs ooh-ing and ahhh-ing over plankton and to see kids clutching little vials of bioluminescent diatoms to use as bedside lanterns like they were their new prized possessions.
Novey: To advertise some of the library workshops and English lessons that Whales of Guerrero offers to community members, you ask kids to make hand-drawn advertisements for them. Apparently the going payment rate is “one temporary tattoo for ten signs.” Have you found that this is an effective way to advertise?
Audley: Mexico is a very oral culture. So the signs get drawn by the kids, which ends up turning into an educational and creative activity of its own, then they go around the village to the main spots where people visit — the tortilleria, the fruit stand, the kindergarten and so on — and they put the sign up and tell the shop owner about the event. This spreads the word and gets people talking. It gets kids talking to their moms about the animals they are drawing and increases the appreciation about nature overall.
Novey: Let’s talk about the whales of Guerrero themselves. What have you learned about them?
Audley: We are three years into a five year study. In two more years, we will be able to say where humpback whale mothers and calves tend to go in our region to rest, nurse and be quiet and away from the advances of hopeful male humpback escorts.
We have discovered that our humpback whales are a combination of two sub-groups of the northeastern Pacific humpback whale population. One subgroup tends to feed in Monterey Bay, Northern California, Oregon and Washington and comes down to Baja and Banderas Bay to calve. The other subgroup tends to feed in Southern California, near the Channel Islands, and goes all the way to Central America to calve. These two groups are genetically quite distinct when you do an analysis of their genetic haplotype through skin samples. We are matching the tails of our whales to whales found in both regions, which is very interesting, as there is an argument for splitting humpback whales into sub-groups, given how distinct the groups tend to be.
We have confirmed that humpback whales almost certainly are mating and calving in our region.
We are seeing some humpback whales sticking around our region for a few days and returning over a period of a few months while others are passing through. So we do not know yet if the humpback whales are using our region as a resting area or just passing through primarily, or maybe both. Some of the re-sightings between years happen with in one week, so a whale that we see on January 20, 2014, we will see exactly one year later, on January 21, 2015. That kind of punctual site fidelity is pretty amazing.
We have noticed that the singing males tend to stay down for a really long time, they keep singing when they come up to breathe and in general the humpback whales in our region stay below the surface for a very long time!
We have seen rough toothed dolphins harassing humpback whales at the surface on a number of occasions. I have only found a couple of publications about this kind of interaction and this will be interesting to record and collect data on in more depth to share with the scientific community.
We are beginning to match our flukes in more detail with colleagues along the entire coast of Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington and getting information on how they move between sites and when.
We are finding that mothers and calves tend to rest in the very shallow areas, almost between wave sets on the beach by Barra de Potosi and that they are more quickly disturbed and change their behavior to leave when boats approach them.
Novey: You recently witnessed a “spinner dolphin party.” What happens at that kind of party?
Audley: Spinner dolphins can spin around in the air up to 6 times in a single leap! We saw two ‘super pods’ of over 1000 spinner dolphins last season and at any given moment, up to 100 of them were spinning in the air at the same time! There was surely plenty of sexual reproduction going on below the surface, as well.
Novey: What are some of the big goals you have in the next few years for the project?
Audley: I am building this project in a way that it will hopefully be able to stand on its own and live without me, should it need to, by 2019. (Not that I have any intention of going anywhere after that!) A healthy project that has taken real root in the community it supports should belong to and be cared for by the community members and passed on for generations to come.
For the next two years, my goal is to get our data collection and analysis protocol into a solid enough state that we can train community members to not only spot and photograph whales and dolphins with us, but enter, correct, organize, and analyze it for years to come.
I don’t expect to ‘convert’ 100% of the community members where I live into dedicated conservationists. I spent last winter identifying who the key opinion makers and thought leaders are in both our little village of Barra de Potosi and in the twin cities of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. Now, my job is to focus on capacity building with them. This means bringing them to meetings and places where big decisions about making an area a natural protected region take place, and giving them opportunities to network with fishermen in other places in Mexico who have put the health of their ocean first and benefited financially as a result. Once we have a core group of committed conservationists in our region who have seen first-hand what can happen and are excited to do the work, I will know that my hopes for a healthier marine ecology has a strong chance of succeeding.
We need to finish our intended 5-year field study. We are three years in, with 1000 hours of field effort under our belts. Whales migrate and calve in cycles of 2 to 3 years and we do not yet know what those cycles are for the whales in our region. We don’t know yet which dolphins are resident and transient in our region. Since last year was an El Niño year, we observed a lot of anomalies in terms of what kinds of marine animals were around, where they were, how they behaved and when they came and left. If we hadn’t had two years of data collected before that, we would have just thought that there are hardly any whales in Guerrero! But the year before, 35% of the whales we observed were mother/calf or mother/calf/escort groups, meaning 18% of the whales we saw last year were calves! This would be an unhealthy growth rate for humpback whales. So, there are many reasons to finish out the study, for its own merit and the contribution it will be to the scientific community along with maintaining it as the backbone upon which all of our conservation and education efforts are built.
Kids grow up fast where I live and work in Mexico. Most of them are married by the time they are 19 or 20! So the kids who have been coming to our weekly workshops and school programs now will be joining the workforce in 2019. The fact that we’ve spent so much time turning these kids into nature lovers and taught them to apply the scientific method to questions and problems they might have and to look deeply and with focus at the world around them is really exciting. Now, we need to make sure to create opportunities and incentives for this same generation to make choices that put the planet first. Ecotourism will help. Sharing our baseline scientific data about all of the big animals we are studying in the ocean with the scientific community to open up more opportunities for field work and responsible ecotourism to occur will keep supporting the region. So my immediate goals are to keep hiring great interns who understand how important it is to share their passion for nature with kids, fishermen, and the local community, and to continue offering solid marine biodiversity programs in the schools and community.
In 2013, people asked me questions about humpback whales such as, “Is it true that humpback whales lay eggs?” and were in unanimous agreement that killer whales are fearsome creatures. These days, when we have video nights in the village, kids yell out the latin names of the animals with excitement and know more about humpback whales than most people in the world! By 2019, I hope to see real pride and care taking place in Barra de Potosi and in the extended area about its natural offerings. I hope that people will know in their bones that if you take care of nature, nature will take care of you. We should see this reflected in many small ways that add up: a reduction in garbage on the streets and on the beach, art for sale featuring the animals that live in the area, eco-tourists who come back year after year to connect with the community, eco-tour guides who are making a good enough living to be able to take care of their families well, a community that is united in how they fish, where they fish and what they fish for.
I regret that I did not have time or funding to conduct a thorough baseline evaluation of community perception about nature and biodiversity, so I have to depend on anecdotes and general shifts as proof of improvements. But life is short and the timing happens to be perfect right now to support this place in shifting toward an ethos of marine stewardship. Here’s hoping we are able to continue our work and see it through!
Novey: There are many young people around the world who would love to work in conservation and with charismatic species like whales. Do you have any advice for them?
Audley: I believe all field scientists have a duty to translate their scientific discoveries and knowledge with the local communities connected to the nature they are studying, the way a doctor is required to follow the Hippocratic Oath and heal the sick and share their knowledge with future generations. The trick to this, however, especially when you are young (I know! I was young and omniscient once, too!) is to share what you know and observe how people live in your study area without judgment. We need people who can serve as bridges between scientists, government officials and the local community, or any conservation measures which are set in place will fail. The key to being a good bridge person is being humble, compassionate, authentic and fun! When I meet young people who have these characteristics, I am so hopeful for the future, because I know they will be leaders in the long-term care of our planet.
The other important thing is that the world does not necessarily need more specialists. You do not need to have a degree in science even to be a good conservationist. Foreign visitors who come to our region and spend their money on locally made art and pay a trained guide their fare wage to go on an ecotour are doing a lot for conservation! Teachers of science, language arts, and history who emphasize the importance of biodiversity and open students’ eyes to the world around them and teach them to think well are doing great and noble work for the planet! I encourage young people to find out what excites them and interests them the most and then do the work to find out what work or personal skills they have naturally or can acquire without too much struggle and to use those skills focusing on the thing that they never get tired of thinking about. There is very little money in it; I still am working for free and paying for at least half of this project out of my own pocket from other paying work every year, but I am one of the most deeply satisfied people I know because I know the world will be a better place as a result of my efforts. It doesn’t really get any better than that.
In 2015, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported the Whales of Guerrero Research Project through a grant from its International Affairs Mexico Program.