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Kickstarter has endorsed us as a “Project We Love” Photo (c) Katie McConnell 2015, Estero Slight

This May, Patagonia Projects will return to Golfo do Penas to continue investigations on the Sei whale mass mortality event. During this expedition, we will install time lapse cameras to monitor the decomposition of the whales, and observe how they are recycled into the Patagonian ecosystem.

Check out our brief Kickstarter Campaign Video, and read more about the project: http://kck.st/1PtP3N1

Direct video link:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/patagoniaprojects/life-after-death-the-whales-of-golfo-de-penas-pata/widget/video.html

 

 

UPDATE: April 9, 2016

Wahoo! This Kickstarter was funded in just five days by an incredible flood of support from people all over the globe.

With the extra fundraising, we are now able to make a higher quality short documentary, and are in the midst of developing a small bioacoustics branch! Please continue to share our video, as every dollar is a step forward towards a multi-faceted, interactive, and ongoing project. Thank you for helping to bring awareness to the pristine and abundant life of Golfo de Penas, and highlighting the need for its conservation.

-Katie

 

 

 

 

 

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Expedition HF27: Initial findings and speculation

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Group shot in front of the Tempanos Glacier. Clockwise from top left: Sebastián, Franco, Greg, Keri, Ana, Katie, Fernanda y Alex, Fiordo Tempano (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk

We are excited to have returned safely from a very successful expedition to Golfo de Penas. The final count is in, and Expedition HF27 has reeled in a grand total of 1,051 samples!

After arriving to Puerto Montt, we presented all samples to Chilean authorities for inventory and revision, and now we are able to distribute samples to their respective specialists and laboratories for analysis. We are very excited to see results from analyses for stable isotopes, trace elements, Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), phytoplankton abundance and species richness, virology, oceanographic nutrients and gasses, and DNA. The resulting information will not only provide insights into the mass mortality event of the Sei whales, but also their general life histories and, most importantly, the marine and terrestrial environment of Golfo de Penas overall.

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Ana and Vreni open up boxes of samples for revision, 7 March 2016

Here is the breakdown of sample totals:

WATER SAMPLES

  • Nutrients: 182
  • Gasses 370
  • Plankton 90

CTD CASTS 45

BIOTA

  • Munida packets: 3
  • Mussels packets:5
  • Stable Isotopes (plants, earth): 137
  • PSP tests: 25

WHALES

  • Necropsy: 138
  • DNA : 35
  • Baleen: 21

GRAND TOTAL: 1051

While still keeping in mind the unclear seasonality, residence time and patchiness of Harmful Algae Bloom (marea roja) events in Golfo de Penas, it must be noted that we received 19 negative results of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) tests from all around the entire Golfo. 11 of these negative results come from Phytoplankton samples, 6 come from mussels and 2 come from Munida samples. One of these negative resulting Munida samples came from the duodenum (an organ just below the stomach along the digestive tract) of a necropsied whale.

We did receive some ambiguously positive results from our field PSP tests. These three samples come from Phytoplankton near the head of Seno Newman, where the water was a bright iodine-like color, and plankton tows brought up a large quantity of filamentous green algae and thousands of very small amphipod and shrimp-like creatures (sizes where <5mm). However, repeat sampling three days later resulted in a negative test. Laboratory qualitative, quantitative and chemical analysis will provide more detailed insights in the future. For more information, please check back for a more detailed report under Project, Phytoplankton on this blog.

These initial findings, combined with observations of at least 2 large pods of orcas attacking Sei whales (see Keri’s post and Greg’s post), and the appearance of many newly dead Sei whales along beaches in areas where orcas are present and PSP is not, leads us to begin to shift our research focus as we look towards our return to these sites in May. Some immediate questions that arise are (1) Could it be that orcas are responsible for all, or the majority, of the 337 whales’ deaths reported from last year ?(2) How many new whales will we find in May ? (3) What is the scope of the orca-baleen whale interaction in Golfo de Penas and Chilean Patagonia? (4) Is there connectivity between other regions? (5) Did red tide really play a role in this event? How much?

These are just a few questions that we are doing our best to prepare for over the next two months. And in the meantime, we will be working on compiling our findings from this expedition, especially the observed orca and Sei whale behavior, into a succinct report to be widely communicated.

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Seba, Ana, Katie, Franco and Alex look to the orcas and sei whale in the distance (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk 2016

 

 

 

Is it Mere Murder?

March 3, 2016

Greg Landreth

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Is it Mere Murder?

The other day I was writing some prosaic blog post about how we were, at close of this part of the expedition, just beginning to weld ourselves into a team, the kind with which difficult things go smoothly and the boring chores are attended to without asking. Nature had gifted us with the carcass of a newly-dead baby whale, just as we were preparing to cross back over the treacherous Golfo de Penas. That may seem a little morbid, but that was what we were looking for as it slotted neatly into our search for usable DNA. It was raining softly, but the equipment had been laid out neatly for the job and, based on our past experience everyone had their place in the operation. Mine, as usual, was to act as point-man, running supplies across the gap between the boat and shore and seeing to the security of Saoirse. Nothing had been said, but the idea was that this necropsy alone could be the defining study which would begin to outline the story of the whale cemetery.

Again, nothing has been said, but our studies had been certainly slanted towards the theory that red tide is the villain of the piece here, linking this phenomena to El Niño and therefore global warming in general. This is logically reasonable, since the vast scope of the whale deaths point to a single toxic occurrence in the ecosphere. We could look forward to a nice, succinct solution to the puzzle. Then, Nature threw us a curve ball.

Cut to the present and I am standing in the pilothouse of Saoirse, securely anchored to various rotting tree trunks and preparing the boat for the return of the necropsy team from their sombre occupation some 200m away on the shore. Previously, in the quietly brooding gloom of Caleta Buena we had freed the body of the baby whale from the web of tree branches which fringed the cove at high tide and carefully towed her with the dinghy to a flat, stony beach where we could get a footing to conduct the operation at low tide. It was raining softly, but all had been proceeding smoothly. I had been monitoring the radio as the team had been exchanging the few terse sentences they needed to sharpen knives, organize samples, carry tools. Nothing wrong with the picture.

The first distortion of this placid mindscape was Katie’s voice edging in on the radio, “Do you see whales breaching out there in Puerto Slight?”.  I grabbed the binoculars from their holster and focused them on what seemed to be a flurry of whale blows out in the main body of the sound some 2 miles away. “Looks like dolphins jumping or something” I chimed back, “not whales anyway.”

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February 23, 2016 – A Sei whale runs full-speed into Caleta Buena, while Katie reports to Greg via radio (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk 2016

“They’re coming towards us into the bay!”, came the excited rejoinder. I looked again, and sure enough the splashing disturbance in the water was headed right in to the cove. Fast. Suddenly I could see the fins of Orca running fast and hard down the bay, jumping and churning the dark waters into a froth. Mingling in to the growing chaos emerged the much bigger blows and surface signature of a larger baleen whale. The whole thrashing mass was headed straight for the beach at the head of the cove where all of the other beached whales lay in their various states of decay.

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Two orcas chasing the Sei whale, just after it beached itself in front of the necropsy team, mid dissection. The Sei whale managed to shimmy back into the water and continue fleeing the orcas until it was out of sight. (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk

 

It was happening just as the fishermen had described. The Orcas charging, jumping and slapping, delivering pile-driver blows to the body of their hapless prey. Its stricken flight took it closer and closer to the beach in an effort to escape its pernicious persecutors, but the whale was clearly doomed. Around and around the bay the orcas continued harrying the whale, driving their blunt noses into its flanks and slapping at it with their powerful tails until it took one final charge towards the exit of the cove and was lost to view.

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February 23, 2016. Two orcas chase a Sei whale towards a beach in Golfo de Penas, Chile, just before the Sei whale beachs itself, re-enters the water, and momentarily escapes until it is chased out of sight. At least one, perhaps two, of the pod of 5-6 orcas appears to have been juvenile. (c) Katie McConnell 2016

The next morning the corpses of two newly dead sei whales lay glistening on the beach at the head of Caleta Buena. The fantastic power of Nature had come in one insane vision, blazed itself in front of us and vanished, leaving our carefully ordered scientific thoughts twisted and bleeding on the beach. So where does this leave us now?

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February 24, 2016. The next morning, a new Sei whale was found next to another, recently deceased Sei. Alex conducts tissue sampling for DNA and Stable Isotope Analysis (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk

Last year, if someone had suggested that the several hundred whale carcasses strewn across hundreds of square miles of the Patagonian coast could have been the work of a group of marauding orca, I too would have scorned the idea as being as farfetched as some of the other theories such as military sonar, radiation from Fukushima etc. which abounded on the internet at the time. Now, having heard the stories from the fishermen and locals, seen it happen in front of my own eyes, I have to conclude that that this is now not only a possibility, but also a probability. If what happened in Caleta Buena can account for all of the whale deaths in that locale, can we then construct a plausible scenario which includes all of the denizens of the whale cemetery? If we can, and this turns out to be the case, what can this tell us about predatory behaviour in Orcas, in ourselves?

Certainly it changes the game concerning about what information we are now required to collect. First, we must now listen to the stories, ancient and modern, that come from the mouths of the people who live here, then verify them with our own experience. The past experience of the wild is concentrated (imperfectly) in the stories of the people who have lived there.
If a chance meeting with the captain of a fishing boat can tell us the truth about what is happening in the here and now, then surely a parsing through of older stories may illuminate some of the pieces of the puzzle which have faded in time.

We are now in Puerto Eden, preparing Saoirse for the next part of the expedition in May, meantime I hope we can be passing some of these stories from the the source to you.

Black(b)log: Seno Escondido Smack

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February 7, 2016

Katie McConnell

Shhh! Don’t tell Keri, but while she was out with the paleontologists we ran aground for a hot second!

Seno Escondido stretches East to West, starting with a round belly of a bay. Heading west out of this bay, the Seno abruptly turns into a narrow snake of a run that ends in a tidal mudflat and isthmus to the open sea. Just getting in to Seno Escondido with a sailboat begins with a thread-the-needle maneuver, zigzagging up a narrow 5 meters-deep channel between a rocky shoreline and an ankle-deep sandspit marked by a small flock of giant petrels.

 

This is my fourth excursion sailing with Saoirse, but my first time as a crewmember. In the past, I worked for Vreni Häussermann as her assistant and SCUBA diver doing underwater biological surveys of invertebrates, fish and algae. Now, I have found myself alongside Keri and Greg, spending hours sounding out the entire entrance route to Seno Escondido in the dinghy, all the way into the inner lagoon to a safe, intermediary anchorage. Since our paleontological survey sites are accessible only by dinghy, it is important to keep Saoirse, our safe home base, as nearby as possible.

That was yesterday, and today we left our muddy bay to venture westward towards a presumed whale cemetery awaiting our scientists. Keri took the paleontologists in the dinghy this morning, while I stayed with Franco, Seba and Greg to complete oceanographic stations (CTD, Niskin and Plankton Net casts throughout Seno Escondido) and assist with the boat.

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Seno Escondido, entrance is by passing the sandspit on the east side

The whole safari up the breezy lagoon was “smooth sailing,” an easy 6-7 meters depth and frequent stops to complete oceanographic sampling. We even stopped for a moment and drifted while we ate lunch. Back on the road again after tea, with not too much farther to go before our planned anchorage, when 6 meters…

6 meters…

6 meters…

6 meters…

brrrrrrrrrRRROOOM!

3.4 meters 3.2 meters 3.1 meters!!!

The whole of Saoirse sluggishly lurched to a muddy stop as the port side liiiifted up slowly, my watery plankton sample creeping up towards the starboard rim of its glass jar. The engines cut as Greg immediately took the motor out of gear. I closed the lid on my jar and looked to the bow to make sure Franco was still there—he was. He was laughing and carrying on, taking a syringe full of water out of a niskin bottle hanging from the rolled up jib.

“Vrrrommmmmmmm…” went the engine after Greg took one breath and kicked Saoirse back into gear, pulling us sternside off the sandbar. Like a moth colliding with a lightbulb, the sailboat did a sloshy couple of 360’s and was back on track, leaving a murky trail billowing away from a brown poof! near the bank. We soon found 8 meters and threw anchor for the night.

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Woops! A watery cloud marks the spot near the bank. (c) Katie McConnell 2016

Working as a crewmember with Keri and Greg is a very enriching learning experience. Navigation in Patagonia is a real doozy, starting with the fact that we have three sets of nav charts on board, and each is about a mile and a half off in any given direction (if it has soundings at all). Tonight as we talked about tomorrow’s plan of action, and Greg mentioned, “Oh yeah, we are doing fabulously—I didn’t even think we’d be able to make it to Seno Escondido, and here we are way back up inside of it!”

Today the girls did a spectacular job putting in yet another full day’s work in the sun, wind, rain, stench and flies while surveying some 50+ whales at varying states of decomposition up along the entire southern shoreline of Seno Escondido to the head. At the head, the tidal flat is flanked by sand dunes on the SW side and fed by two brackish lakes tucked away in the forest to the NE. Ana, Fernanda and Alexandra reported back to us today that this area seems to be a true whale cemetery, with sets of whale skeletons from conspicuously different time periods. Keri led the beach expedition, and was filming and photographing each finding.

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Keri-Lee Pashuk bends over a whale in Seno Escondido, gathering material for a future art exhibition (c) Katie McConnell 2016

Keri also took a moment to bolt across the isthmus, summit the sand dunes, and take some photos of the beach on the other side. After dinner this evening, she showed me some of her shots: A small rocky point extends out from the left side of the beach, and some chest high waves peel leftwards between the point and a whale-sized rock outside of the break, to the right. Although it looks a little small and mushy, it does, in fact, look like a bona-fide left point break, it you can believe it!

Writing from my bed tonight, I am jittery with the excitement that I might be able to surf tomorrow. It just looks so fun, so wild and so doable. The feeling is hard to describe; I mean, why does it matter if I surf anywhere? Why is here any more exciting than my home break? What does surfing really do for anyone, really?

One might say that maybe I am surfing for a cause—yes, I am surfing for whale awareness! Yes, for global warming! For science! What if I am surfing for exploration’s sake? Or for a brand? Or any idea? Anything?

…Maybe not, huh?

One thing I have become conscious of is a strange attraction towards this little wave simply because I think I might be the first person to surf it, and perhaps become the first person to surf in all of the infamous Golfo de Penas. Since I can even remember, my favorite childhood games were always those where I was on an adventure or exploring, discovering new things in places no one has ever seen before; however, a new sensation has colored these visions recently, especially now that this expedition is in the position to gain momentum for worldwide attention. “Wow!” think I, “maybe a picture of me will come out in the papers!”

Wow, I can see it now: “Katie McConnell Becomes First Person to Surf Some Mediocre Wave in Some Piss-Poor Weather.”

A-ha, this is a notion I should probably let go of.

But, this could be a reason for why I continue trying to push my surfing to new arenas and different experiences. For instance, even if timing makes it impossible to actually surf this particular wave, the experience of searching for these dreamscapes can reveal aspects of my life which do no service to me or to others. When faced with situations such as these, perhaps we are given an opportunity to fine-tune our perspective. Then, when I do get in the water, I am washed clean. And, if I am lucky enough to catch a wave, it is there that the door to silence whispers open, until it comes crashing down on me and I come up with a smile full of sand.

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Somewhere near Seno Escondido… (right barrel off the point not shown).  –Photo by Katie McConnell 2016