Loreto and adventures in field research – Baja 2003 review and 2004 news

We (Christian and RS) arrived on the evening of February 22 to the grinding electronic cacophony and gyrations of the local Mardi Gras festivities. The thumping decibels accompanying the festivities lasted deep into the first 3 nights, yielding restless sleep at best. Luckily for us there was a strong Norte wind each of the first 3 mornings. And so another year has whipped by, the wind threatens, yet the distant spouts beckon.

Christian – now experienced in the ways of local winds – easily recognizes the telltale signs associated drifting smoke of his first cigarette of the day. His cigarette is studiously enjoyed with his first brew -now of organically grown Mexican coffee newly found in Loreto. The smoke and wisp of steam somehow help his groggy eyes determine the wind direction. Even a slight hint of wind from the NW early in the morning warns of a potentially strong Norte. However, if the wind has been present throughout the night and white caps appear at first light pushed by a strong NW wind, one can plan a day ashore.

On the first morning as the sun’s first rays pierced over Carmen Island we saw the damage done by the late summer hurricane – known locally as a Tormenta – on Loreto’s waterfront. The marina‘s outer wall and roadwork had been largely reduced to rubble though the jetty itself was still present apart from a few gaping wounds. Debris, including large boulders from the malacon (seawall) and harbor were carried several blocks inside Loreto. Pictures of the storm depicted waves of 15ft crashing into Loreto’s facade.

The town has, however, survived and is pretty much as we last saw it, but for the few scars mentioned above. I was informed that as of December 2004 the harbor and seawall had been rebuilt more solidly and with an added flair.

The 2003 Baja season yielded a near record crop of blues in fact the second most with a total of 56 including 30 new animals, of which 7 were calves. The permit process for 2003 was still a slow process, however, Diane Gendron who worked at MICS in the mid 80s and established as a researcher in La Paz since the late 80s was very helpful in facilitating our research permit application. Most importantly the whales were present and we collected some good data.

We found B009 with her 2nd calf in the twenty years we have known her. In addition several regulars were seen such as, Nubbin – first seen off Loreto in 1984, but known since 1970, when it was photographed off southern California, BB039, B050 and B058-known since 1985, BB063-since 1984, and BB084 (Machete) – since 1982. There were also several whales known since the early 90s.

Our 2004 permit was again missing by the time we arrived in Loreto, but it magically appeared our third day there-perhaps the Mardi Gras festivities held it up. The uncertainty lifted we went on the water and concentrated on collecting data. Blue and fins were initially found between Coronado and Carmen Islands not far from Loreto on Feb 25 our first yet short day on the water. Feb 25, 2003 had been a very fine day with many blues, calm water and a the added bonus of sighting 80 short finned pilot whales traveling south just north of Danzante Island. The same date in 2004, however, greeted us with a developing Norte which reach 15-20kts by mid morning and remained steady until evening. The next day we were struck by how many boats were on the water actively approaching whales. In fact the most by far we had seen in more than 20yrs of work in the area. Local boat captains seem to have finally realized that the whales can be a source of tourist dollars particularly when they are just a few miles off Loreto. Having been used to being virtually alone on the water most days over the last 21yrs, the growing whale-watching means we have to be more judicious when carrying out of field observations. We did find, however, that most boat captains still head in by noon and so the rest of the day we are virtually alone out on the water.

On February 26 we got out in early afternoon, which proved to be a good one with at least 8 blue whales, including 2-3 pairs of adults, which we have rarely seen off Loreto. Pairs of mothers with calves are common in the Sea of Cortez in late winter/early spring, however pairings of adults are very rare compared to our observations from the St. Lawrence where female/male pairs are common during the summer and in the fall. This probably due to the fact that the mating season is ending in March and so males are less intent in pursuing females. We saw a trio for two surfacings and were able to photo-ID all 3. One was noticeably smaller than the other two, though not a calf. Both of the flanking animals were biopsied, so we will be able to determine their sex at a later date. Following the two surfacings we observed the smallest of the 3 whales brake away from the pair. Short term groupings such these usually means are simply checking each other out, without the intense interaction we have seen just prior to the breeding season in the St. Lawrence.

Because, we were intent on collecting data on the trio we were not able to identify 4 of the blue whales that we found north of Isla Danzante, but the one other we did photo-ID turned out to be our old friend BB045 Nubbin. This was a wonderful sighting in that Nubbin has been known now for 35yrs and is the oldest known blue whale recognized. Biologists working for the British Antarctic Survey in the 1930s and 40s speculated that blues might live to 30 yrs of age. We now can be certain that they live longer than that and in fact probably live to at least 80-90yrs of age. Hopefully Nubbin will live a long life and teach a good deal more. We did not know its age at first sighting, so it may already be an old whale.

The following day(Feb 27) we had a pleasant flat calm day and we found Nubbin again just north of Isla Danzante along with two other blue whales. The blues seemed to be moving south and there were noticeably fewer than 2 days before. Three more blue whales were seen along the southeast coast of Isla Carmen during our circumnavigation of the 14-mile long island. We found Bryde’s and fin whales feeding on large schools of small mackerel off Punta Tintorera (North end of Carmen) accompanied thousands of pelicans, brown boobies, gulls and 50 or so common dolphins at sunset. A great way to end the day on the water.

By February 29, the blues had moved south and offshore. They may be staying further out in the Sea of Cortez since the nature cruise ships did not see much to the South along the Baja coast.

The wind was a bit odd in 2004, with no full day of Norte until March 6. We did, however have strong west and southwest winds – more usual in summer.

We re-sighted BB332, which has a large growth or swelling on its left side amidships high up on the back, on February29. We have speculated what may have caused this bulge and though we have very good pictures of this whale, we are still uncertain. In the middle of the growth there appears to be a foreign object, which reminds us of the butt end of a satellite tag, but we can’t be certain. The swelling may be due to internal natural causes or even perhaps some form of parasite. The large lump was present when this whale was first sighted in 2002 and there appears to have been no change in size since. BB332 was seen throughout the northern portion of our study area in 2004; at first just north and west of Isla Coronado, two days later 30 miles north by Punta Pulpito and again on March 5 back south just two miles north of Coronado.

By March 5 we were down to 2 blue whales and 14 fin whales sighted between the southern end of Isla Carmen and Isla Galeras.

The Norte then blew and we welcomed Jean Lemire and his Glacialis Production’s film crew, as well as Ann Cabot for a return trip to Baja.

On March 13 we had one of those wonderful Sea of Cortez mornings when the boat seems to be gliding on a fluid mirror. And that is something in a Panga. As we traveled south from Loreto the sun pulled clear of Isla Carmen’s grip and projected a red/gold glow on the Sierra Gigantica backing Loreto. A morning where it is simply fine to be on the water and enjoy the sights. About 3 miles north of Isla Danzante we spotted a Bryde’s cow and calf. The calf was immediately curious, agitated and playful. The mother was as calm and accepting of our presence as I have seen in a baleen whale. She passed easily and calmly just a dorsal fin’s height beneath the boat on several occasions. The calf breached on two occasions, spectacularly, ramrod straight, high out of the water, towering briefly over us before collapsing with a vigorous splash that came within inches of our stern. These were the most vertical, dart-like leaps I had ever seen. Piercing the surface like an arrow and hanging momentarily its full length above the surface a la Michael Jordan, while appearing to look down into our boat.

The calf 17-20ft, probably already several months old, repeatedly rose up and glided just beneath the bow, exhaling bursts of air, rolling twisting, accelerating, raising its head out of the water in a partial breach, eyes staring back, inspecting, and discovering foreign objects and organisms in its new world. This was one of the best Bryde’s whale encounters I have had.

Since the blues seemed to have stayed only briefly in the Loreto area and vacated the immediate study area we decided to head south to Punta Marcial on March 14. In fact we went almost as far as Isla San Jose. We found a cow and calf fin whale, a few bottlenose dolphins and manta rays including two great mantas, rare at this time of year. We saw rays leap in summersaults, throughout the day in this portion of our study area. It was when we headed back to the north nearing Isla Galeras along the East Side of Monserrate, that we found a small blue whale. It was a yearling first seen as a calf in March of 2003. We had called this whale San Martin Pescador due to the form of a flying kingfisher formed by the pigmentation of its right side. SMP had been the calf of one of our longest known females BB050 mentioned above. It was leisurely revisiting one of the places first discovered with its mother at 1-3 months of age and was very accepting our presence. Since it was probably the last blue that we would see in 2004 off Loreto, we enjoyed our time watching this young blue criss-cross the waters just east of Isla Monserrate.

On March 15 we had our second long burst of rain early in the morning. Two rainy mornings in Loreto in March simply unheard of. And the rain was accompanied by dense fog and then a strong Norte – how Mingan-like? We wisely took the day off.

The following day we headed to Lopez Mateos on Magdalaena Bay to film gray whales. We had a great time filming and taking pictures of 9-12 cow and calf pairs right until sunset. We were rewarded with 10s of breaches and many close approaches, which is what the tourist brochures say the grays will do. Art confirms reality yet again.

Back in Loreto no more blue whales were sighted, but plenty of marine birds, sea lions, dolphins, occasional fin or Bryde’s whales and the great views found day in day out in the Loreto Marine Park.

The 2005 Sea of Cortez field season is coming fast and we will be heading back to work on blues for a 21st year on February 23rd.