This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.
MCAF Fellow Florencia Vilches, is a Researcher at the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB) Argentina and a Fulbright scholar. Florencia directs a project that seeks to integrate boat-based southern right whale photographs taken by whale watch operators with the 50-year aerial survey catalog curated by ICB, to improve the models that describe this whale population’s dynamics. In 2018, Florencia had the opportunity to team up with New England Aquarium’s field researchers in the Bay of Fundy. To read about her experience, check out her blog MCAF: Right Whales that Cross Hemispheres. In this current piece, Florencia talks about Espuma, a male Patagonian Southern Right Whale that hasn’t been seen in decades and the importance of photo identification for these magnificent whales and establishing their family trees.
Note: This blog has been backdated for archival purposes.
Blog about Espuma the Patagonian Southern Right Whale
by Florencia Vilches
Right whales can be identified individually from the callosity pattern present on their heads, which is unique to each individual. Since 1971, researchers from Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the Ocean Alliance have conducted annual aerial surveys to photo-identify the right whales off Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina. Thanks to these flights we have created the most complete database and catalog of known individuals that exist for the species, with more than 3,800 whales identified.
The roar of its forty tons crashing into the sea surface after a breach, the impressive five meters wide of its much photographed tail fin, the stir of foam from several males trying to mate with a female, are all aspects that captivate anyone who observes the right whales in their natural habitat. However, those of us who dedicate ourselves to photo identification look at them thinking mainly of one thing … “who are you?“, while resisting the temptation to immediately analyze the photograph of that head on the nearest computer and thus know who it is that is delighting us with its vastness: what is your name? When were you born? Who is your mother?
I was asking myself those questions when, far from the whales but close to their photographs, I was searching the catalog of known whales for those monitored by satellite through the project #SiguiendoBallenas (http://siguiendoballenas.org/en/home/). The objective of this project is to know the migratory routes and feeding areas of the southern right whales that breed in the North Patagonian gulfs. In particular, I was looking for Mariposa, a gray-morph male photographed in 2017 off the coast of San Antonio Oeste (Río Negro Province). Its particular pigmentation already augured a more agile search: there are just over 250 grey-morph individuals present in the catalog. However, since almost all of its body is gray, it is difficult to distinguish its whitish callosities from the rest of the head. Therefore, we can mainly use its black spots pattern to detect a match. Business as usual, I compare their pigmentation pattern with the other gray-morph individuals, one by one. Among them is Espuma –which means “Foam”- with the identification number 0071-75-89-94. Espuma is so famous that he has garnered a multiplicity of titles to his credit: son of Docksider, grandson of Antonia, great-grandson of Whale 71; one of the favorites of our Adoption Program; and even protagonist in the storybook, “Espuma, la ballena blanca“, written by whalewatching Captain Diana Visintini. However, after its birth in 1994 we have seen it only once, in 1995, photographed by whalewatching Captain Rafael Benegas off the shores of the Golfo Nuevo. Since then, and despite the wishes of us and his adopters, we have not seen him again.
So I compare the Mariposa spots to the Foam spots with little hope. Until one spot after another begins to match … and that’s where the feeling comes. That indescribable adrenaline that is experienced in the microseconds before confirming that I am facing a known whale. And here it was not even necessary to rush to the database to know “who are you?“, because it was nothing less than Espumita, whom I already know by heart after so many times I saw his photo wanting him to be but not … and now YES. After twenty-two years of making us and our adopters wish.
My first role at the Instituto de Conservación de ballenas, even as a Biological Sciences student eleven years ago, was to coordinate the Adoption Program. They were not tasks related to my future profession. However, I really enjoyed it. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to talk daily with the whale adopters and thus learn their stories: why they joined, why they particularly chose their whale, what feelings they generate in them, how they spread the word. Many times I have had to answer the question “Do you know anything about my Espuma?“, and with frustration I have had to answer “No, but that does not mean that something bad has happened to him, because we know whales that we saw again after almost half a century without records … you have to be patient”. It was in them, in Espuma’s adopters, that I first thought of after finding this match. With enormous joy and excitement, we thank you for your unconditional support and we tell you that your patience has paid off: welcome back, Espuma!