We’ve Moved!

Please check our new website at www.PatagoniaProjects.org.

All updates and posts will now be there.

Happy sailing,

The PP team


New publication in Patagon Journal / Nueva Publicación en Patagon Journal

Marine biologist and study participant Katie McConnell was featured in Patagon Journal’s recent Climate Change series, highlighting the whales’ story in the midst of Patagonia’s changing environment. Look for Patagon Journal in print at your local La Tercera kiosk throughout Chile, or online at patagonjournal.com

English: http://www.patagonjournal.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3583:misteriosa-muerte-de-ballenas-icausa-del-cambio-climatico&catid=189:climate-change-series&Itemid=279&lang=en

Español: http://www.patagonjournal.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3583%3Amisteriosa-muerte-de-ballenas-icausa-del-cambio-climatico&catid=189%3Aclimate-change-series&Itemid=279&lang=es

This article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with the Earth Journalism Network. 

Brief Recap: 2nd Expedition 2016


After spending all of May in Golfo de Penas conducting a followup investigation to the expedition that took place earlier in the year, Saoirse returned to Puerto Eden on the tail end of a stupendous stretch of good weather.

Similar to the previous expedition, the workflow generally was divided between an oceanography and taphonomy team. While a group in the dinghy surveyed the coastline searching for new whales or conducting measurements on carcasses, Saoirse shadowed while repeating a total of 40 oceanographic stations throughout the Golfo and surrounding fjords.


Repeating stations completed in February, Erika Sagardía managed CTD casts and nutrient and gas sampling from water samples collected with a Niskin bottle at 5m. Katie McConnell conducted sampling for quantitative and qualitative phytoplankton community research using vertical plankton net tows and Niskin samples from the surface and 15m depth. Katie also completed a series of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) tests using Scotia Kits, primarily with phytoplankton and some mussel samples. From the 10 PSP tests conducted in the field, 9 showed a negative presence of the biotoxin and 1 test showed an ambiguously positive result. Interestingly, this ambiguous result came from the head of Seno Newman, in the same site where the only positive PSP test was registered during the February expedition. Extra samples of shellfish and munida were frozen and sent to Dr. David Cassis at the Universidad de Santo Tomás in Santiago for further analysis of PSP.

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A Sei whale surfaces just in front of Saoirse in the Golfo de Penas, early May. (c) Katie McConnell 2016

This May we were happy to have with us Valentina Molinos, a researcher from Fundación MERI, who conducted new zooplankton tows which complimented the oceanographic stations’ CTD casts and Phytoplankton sampling. Using a large round net, Valentina and Greg would go out in the dinghy each night, towing the net for 20 minutes and capturing all sorts of krill, ctenophores and other small, drifting animals. With this registry, we are able to describe one more step in the dynamic food web in Golfo de Penas’s marine ecosystem.

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Valentina catalogues plankton pulled from a tow outside of Puerto Barroso, on north side of Golfo de Penas (c) Katie McConnell 2016

Most thrilling, during our first day crossing the Golfo de Penas, Valentina also was able to deploy a hydrophone as we drifted and observed a small group of 4-5 Sei whales swimming and circling right next to Saoirse. During this encounter, we were able to capture some faint, low-decibel underwater trumpeting from the whales! As Sei whales are notorious for being extremely shy and elusive, this recording is a great step forward in the knowledge of this endangered species!

While at anchor each night, Valentina deployed the hydrophone for 8-10 hours, and we hope to have captured more calls from marine mammals in the region in these recordings.

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Sheets of fat draped across the vertebrae of a whale 1 year dead in Caleta Buena, north side of Golfo de Penas (c) Katie McConnell 2016



Although it is extremely difficult to extract detailed samples from long-deceased whales, we are happy to report that we did not see hardly any newly dead whales during the trip.

This May we were able to add to the sample set taken in February with a large quantity of baleen and bone samples from 99 whales, and, when possible, skin and tissue was also taken.

Also, 4 time lapse cameras installed in February showed the immense range of movement of carcasses because of large tide swings. As the tide rises, relatively in-tact carcasses with large amounts of fat begin to float, and their physical orientation, or even location on the beach can change dramatically within a matter of hours. Furthermore, some of the largest tide swings of the year occurred in early March, and some carcasses disappeared completely. See two shots below:

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High tide envelops a 2.5-week dead whale in Caleta Buena. The whale moved considerably before it was layed to rest in the next low tide. (c) Katie McConnell

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Eventually the extreme tide swings moved the whale out of frame of the camera (c) Katie McConnell 2016

The cause of the nearly 400 whales’ death will remain a mystery until samples are further analyzed in laboratories in Chile and Germany, and we anxiously await  results for biotoxin, virus and parasite presence, and the detailed analysis of the trace elements in the baleens and the genetic content of collected bone fragments. In the furture, we are planning our return to download data from the newly installed Bushnell cameras, and hope to be able to reinstall them for more monitoring.

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Juan Andrés Olivos, Erika Sagardia, Valentina Molinos, Oliver Darwin, Camilo Narreto, Katie McConnell. Not pictured: Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk (c) Katie McConnell 2016






Death from above


During the course of the February expedition, Greg and Keri donated 4 time lapse cameras that were installed in four locations throughout Golfo de Penas in order to begin to monitor the progression of the whale mortality event. Two of these cameras were installed in Seno Escondido, one overlooked the bay of Estero Slight, and one was left in a tree to monitor the beach at the head of Caleta Buena.

By reviewing the information collected by these preliminary cameras, we were able to troubleshoot settings, setups, etc. for the continuation of this long term project. Although there were a number of technical details we were able to easily work out, there were some natural causes we hadn’t initially foreseen.

When the camera that overlooked Slight was recovered, Camilo and Juan reported that it was facing up at the sky– which was a definite bummer, except for the pretty cloud pictures we probably got. But more importantly, how had it managed to fall over? I thought my snazzily engineered PVC holder, complete with the strength of a thousand zipties, was basically a bomb-proof setup.

Reviewing the data, however, revealed the culprit.



At 7:40am on February 21, a vulture circles the poor ESLIGHT1 cam. At 7:50, it disappears…. where did it go?!



8:00am: Aha!



8:10am: ESLIGHT1 has been taken down, doomed to monitor the drifting clouds and get rain on its lens for weeks to come.



Stay tuned for another post about the current cameras installed, and more results from these first four cameras!


Cheers from Puerto Eden,





The Colours of Death and Life and the Circle Going Around

Churrete on Whale

Churrete on a whale, photo by Keri-Lee Pashuk 2016


More than a hundred of the three hundred plus whales that mysteriously died sometime in 2015, lie in various states of decay, strung out at uncannily regular intervals along the 14 mile eastern shore of Seno Newman.    Each carcass is in a different state of decomposition, some washed high and dry by storms and lying along the edge of the high tide line with skin desiccated, fungi, moss and bacteria painting the whales in preternatural oranges, pinks, reds and greens.  Others lie semi -submerged in the sea, waterlogged skin and blubber undulating gently on the calm waters of the fiord, skeins of oil floating on the lines of current.   Others are disappearing into the sea, skeletons washed apart by the wave action of the westerly gales and storms that periodically blast their way across the fiord.  Vertebrae, ribs and even entire skulls are revealed in the shallow waters of low tide and lie scattered along the rocky sandstone shores.   Under the surface of the peat coloured water, black snails, sea urchins, chitins and limpets graze the dark green algae covering the bones while small centolla crab circle the scene.
Meanwhile, on shore, baleen, sometimes intact, sometimes in bits and pieces, lie washed up in the intertidal zone.  One intact section of baleen hosts bog daisies and prickly heath bushes, the healthy looking plants reaching up through the individual baleens, stretching toward the low winter sun.  Vultures, giant petrels and seagulls feed on the putrifying flesh, cinclodes, blackbirds and Chilean swallows are all feeding on and around the dead whales on who knows what…perhaps eating the oscillating larvae spotted in the windows of decayed flesh?.. or snapping up the blue tailed fly that laid the larvae?.. or maybe even on the decaying flesh and fat of the whale?
The colours of each dead whale are as individual as I imagine each whale to have been.   I am not sure why, but always imagined whales to be sentient.   Perhaps it comes from our past experiences with humpback, minke, orcas and even beluga whales and our moments shared with them when their curiosity seemingly outweighed their fear.  Many times the whales swam alongside us for hours, some larger than our first boat, Northanger, swimming the bow wave, following behind in the wake or diving under the hull and resurfacing on the other side.   They seemed to know we were there, watching, sharing the moment with them.  We did not go to them, they chose to accompany us.
On the second day of this current trip, navigating on unusually calm seas in the Golfo de Penas, two sei whales found us on Saoirse and stayed with us some time, feeding around the boat.  This was a first for us, sei whales being normally very timid.  It also seemed a good omen for the beginning of the follow up of the whale study project.  Life, vibrant life where as before, on our previous expedition, we found only death.
After life, is death and after death, colours.  And life.  The circle going around.
Caleta Yvonne, Messier Channel

Puerto Barroso


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May 13, 2016
–Katie McConnell

It is early morning in Puerto Barroso, on the north side of Golfo de Penas. The first yellow lights of dawn are illuminating the gray fog bank and low hanging marine layer that is sticking to the dark green hills. Just two months ago we came stumbling in to this same anchorage after getting blown out of the Golfo at about 35kts, and I remember being baffled at how I could possibly return to this seemingly random spot, in the middle of nowhere, for a second time. I suppose I figured history to would eventually repeat itself, but maybe I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

Well, here we are again. Since I didn’t get a chance to update the website much before we left, I think I better introduce our current team before we get too far ahead of ourselves.

The sailboat Saoirse is captained by Keri Lee-Pashuk and Greg Landreth, of Canada and New Zealand (respectively). On-board we have Camilo Naretto and Juan Andrés Olivos, both veterinarians representing the Universidad de Chile (EUTROPIA); Valentina Molinos from Fundación MERI who is handling zooplankton tows and hydrophone recordings; oceanographer Erika Sagardía Monsalve from Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso; Ollie Darwin of Drone Exposure who is documenting the journey and scouting sites with a drone; and myself, conducting phytoplankton tows, Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning tests, and installing time lapse cameras to watch the long-term decomposition of the whales.

The first time we were in Puerto Barroso about a year ago, we found four whale skeletons while diving on the floor in the middle of the bay. They appeared quite old, and the bones were covered in cottony white bacteria mats and dozens of white and pink anemones, like daisies. Small hermit crabs scuttled over the crests of the skulls, popping into their shells and tumbling to the ground if we came too close. Last time, in February, we were here looking for more dead whales, and a boat of fishermen tipped us off to the whereabouts of some potential feeding grounds and places where they had seen orca attacks.

Last night, we completed our first full week on the watery road of this follow-up expedition, and after departing from Seno Escondido and slinging the CTD and plankton nets across the entire Gulf, we came puttering in to Puerto Barroso for our third time and threw out the anchor with an exhausted sigh.

Amidst the gentle sloshing of little waves on the coastal cobbles, there was another sound: cavernous bursts of air in the distance, the peaceful and powerful slow breathing of whales. Juan Andrés, Valentina and I went scurrying outside, whispering and tiptoeing and shining our lights off the bow into the direction of the breaths… which were just out of the reach of our headlamps, of course.

Now we are watching the whales wake up with the sunrise. On the other side of the bay we see two white spouts of water standing out in front of the shaded forest. Ollie has just launched the drone, and it has just gone whizzing off across the water like an oversized mechanical mosquito. Camilo is spotting through the binoculars and giving directions to Ollie on how to get closer to the whales. We want to see exactly how many and what species of whale they are, and hopefully with the drone we can figure out what they are doing without disturbing them with the noisiness of our motors.

Now, as the whales slowly begin to make their way out of the bay, swimming with the outflowing tide, we are lifting anchor and following suit towards Caleta Buena in Estero Slight– the same anchorage of the orca attacks two months ago and also the location of two time lapse cameras. After completing our studies in Seno Escondido with very few new whales, we are anxious to see what new findings may arise in the next study regions.




An un-explored beach and Saoirse


Photo (heavily compressed to reduce size): An un-explored beach and Saoirse (our boat) with Cerro San Valentin dominating the background
All good over here in Patagonia, got some cracking drone footage and pictures. Had a close call yesterday – the drone lost signal and did a “return to home” – the problem was the boat had shifted slightly due to the tide and it nearly landed straight in the water, luckily we had someone in a dinghy who raced over and saved it just in time!

The weather has been really good which is apparently very uncommon for this time of year; this has meant I have been able to “Drone” almost everyday.
I have lots of dead Whale footage but not much footage of live Whales, it’s really hard trying to be in the right place at the right time as they only surface every 10 minutes or so. I have got some really good footage of an island covered with seals that we sailed past. There are a lot of vultures near the dead Whales and I have managed to get some pretty interesting footage following them as they climb in thermals. There has been a mixed reaction from the local wildlife regarding the drone, some animals like the seals found it pretty scary but the vultures don’t seem bothered. Some brave parrots tried to scare it away by flying right past it – which made for some good footage!

It’s ridiculously isolated out here, until two days ago we hadn’t seen any other signs of human life for 14 days. Then randomly we bumped into another sailing boat that had four French tourists on board, we anchored together and they brought cheese over for supper– classic French!

I was expecting to be eating tinned soup for the duration of the trip – I was wrong. There is food stored in every possible nook and cranny in the boat meaning that each day we have fresh fruit and veg and last night we even had lamb! We have heating, power and the occasional hot shower, so, boat life is very civilized.

The scenery is spectacular, with the Andes making the perfect backdrop for pictures and footage, it’s also really dynamic – changing from day to day. One thing that has remained pretty consistent is the density of the forest. I am really keen to climb up some hills but every time we get to a beach I realize that it’s impossible to get more than 1 meter into the thick jungle.

For me one of the most exciting things about this trip the fact we are visiting places so remote and isolated that there is a good chance they have never been explored before. Which means we never know what to expect, the drone makes it quick and easy to get unique perspectives on islands and is a useful tool for seeing things underwater – making a shipwreck discovery an exciting (although still pretty remote) possibility.

We have just arrived at Caleta Buena where we have seen the first building in two weeks – it’s a shed which houses a JCB that enables workers to get supplies to the lighthouse 7km away. If the weather holds we will be making our way overland to the lighthouse the day after tomorrow so we can speak to the workers about possible whale sightings.