May 13, 2016
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.