You ask me if I want to leave my day job to escape dreary Seattle and spend vacation observing whales in the sunny Bay of Loreto, Mexico?
I booked my flights immediately.
You see, I actually love macrofauna but somehow I’ve managed to spend the last five years working with microfauna – algae – phytoplankton. The invisible ocean forest. Estimated to be responsible for over 50% of the Earth’s Oxygen production.
I have learned so much about the importance of these little creatures. They are plant AND animal, and make up the base of the food chain indirectly supporting nearly all other forms of life. Pretty important little guys, in my opinion. I’ve grown very fond of them over the years. But this post isn’t about them, it’s about the whales, so let’s keep moving!
Phytoplankton are eaten by Krill.
And Krill are eaten by Baleen whales. One large family of Baleen whales includes the Rorquals (such as Blue Whales, Finback whales, Minke Whales, and Humpback Whales to name a few)!
Blue Whales happen to be the largest of the whales and also happen to be the largest animal EVER to exist on earth. You’d think to be that big you’d have to eat some pretty big food.
But they don’t. They survive solely on krill. Tiny tiny little things. HOW?! WHY!?
Luckily RadioLab answered this question and did an amazing bit on the whole cycle. You HAVE to read it here.
Kinda makes ya wanna get your hands on some of that whale poo, doesn’t it?
I spent days feasting my eyes on blue whales and humpback whales. I got to spend 5 magical seconds petting a gray whale mother and on two occasions got caught in a pod of hundreds of common dolphins leaping on the bow waves.
I was there to identify visiting whales by performing marine transects above and below the water. Gathering this scientific data is important to help better understand the present environmental and biological conditions of Bay of Loreto Marine Park.
Bay of Loreto Marine Park was created and approved on July 19, 1996 and in 2005 was inscribed by the United Nation’s list as a 2,065 square kilometer protected World Heritage Site in the Sea of Cortez. There are over 800 species of marine life inhabiting the sea, many of which are currently endangered.
Because of many political dramas and lack of resources in Mexico, enforcing any rules and regulations for the park is something that still needs attention. Even with decline in fish stocks and the re-routing of the Columbia River (which used to feed the Sea of Cortez) many animals exist here and I feel so lucky that I got to see so many whales on a daily basis.
We didn’t do any tagging but the ways in which we did collected data included the following:
- Photographing and filming above and below water – helps identify individuals using pigmentation, fluke tears, and scars and see who returns year after year.
- Collecting sound recordings using hydrophones.
- Collecting data on water and air environment.
- Helping update museum identification catalogs.
- Collecting plankton samples for studying available micro-fauna.
- Assembling skeletons and other display pieces for a small museum.
My micro-fauna and microscope skills came into good use once we took plankton tows of what was floating around in the water column. We used an 80 micron net which is still pretty big for collecting any phytoplankton. Back in Seattle we use 15 micron nets and I work with algae that would even slip through a 10 micron net!
Every day we kept pulling up these mysterious gel balls. At first we thought they might be fish eggs but as the days passed no vertebrate like structures developed. At one point we noticed some of them had little tentacles poking out and they squirt propelled themselves forward, so we got our hopes high that they might be Humboldt Squid eggs! I spend hours back in the museum trying to photograph these invisible mysteries.
Along with other pleasant microscopic treasures
As well as not so pleasant not so microscopic creatures
I had posted some of the mystery gel photos online and some of my more knowledgeable marine friends suggested they might actually be marine gelatinous creatures called Salps. Whats?! Salps. Barrel-shaped planktonic tunicates that moves by contracting, pumping water through its gelatinous body. Apparently salp jet propulsion is one of the most efficient in the animal kingdom. Who knew!
The verdict is still out and what exactly these gel balls are still remains a mystery!
The trip was amazing and I was privileged to hang out with such amazing creatures.