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Where do mother whales go?

October 06, 2014

Where do mother whales go?

Héctor Guzmán, holding a custom-made air rifle, scans the swells of Panama’s Las Perlas Archipelago

Héctor Guzmán, holding a custom-made air rifle, scans the swells of Panama’s Las Perlas Archipelago. He spots a female humpback whale and instructs Carlos Guevara, his long-time collaborator, to fearlessly pull the boat alongside the massive mammal—three or four times the length of the vessel.

With one deft shot the STRI staff scientist embeds a transmitter in the whale’s blubber just in front of its dorsal fin, thus initiating unprecedented data-collection of its long migration along the western coast of the Americas. The behavior of the animal remains unchanged.

Guzmán’s satellite tracking system is already revealing new details about female humpbacks and their inseparable calves, which are not tagged. One pair began its southward migration, hugging the coastline en route to the Strait of Magellan or Antarctica.

Two others headed west to Panama’s Azuero Peninsula and Coiba National Park. These pairs challenge the previous idea that they remain in Las Perlas for the duration of their stay. “Whales don’t stay in a single area for many days, they are constantly moving and return,” said Guzmán.

All of the whales should head south by the end of October. If the transmitters continue to function they may trace the movements of these individuals for up to a year.

“We chose mothers with calves because they are the most vulnerable to collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing nets,” said Guzmán, whose previous whale tracking work led to the implementation of a designated route for commercial ships in the Bay of Panama intended to reduce potential collisions with whales.

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