Student researchers observing a gray whale spyhopping.

Student researchers observing a gray whale spyhopping.

Nat Hab Philanthropy is helping fund whale research in San Ignacio Lagoon, where we take travelers to see the Great Gray Whales of Baja. This unique marine ecosystem is located in the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the late 1990s, this wetland came under serious threat from a proposed salt production facility that would have permanently altered the gray whales’ habitat. Fortunately, the proposal was shot down, and the community has come together in support of sustainable tourism that highlights the beautiful marine life of this biosphere reserve. Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program (LSIESP), the recipient of the grant, is using Nat Hab donations to conduct studies on whale behavior and conservation methods.

A gray whale breaching in Baja, Mexico.

A breaching gray whale.

The LSIESP team is making significant strides in gray whale research. In addition to keeping an official record of the number of gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon each year, three of LSIESP’s papers have been accepted for presentation at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain. Funds from Nat Hab have helped scientists and students attend the conference. “This is great news and a wonderful opportunity for our researchers to be recognized in the international marine mammal scientific arena, and to meet and network with like-minded researchers that attend,” said Dr. Steven Swartz, LSIESP’s program co-director and senior scientist.

A gray whale with her calf in Baja, Mexico

A gray whale with her calf.

Swartz also shared details and developments of a drone-based project that seeks to understand the underlying causes and ramifications of the Unusual Mortality Event of 2019, which saw Northeastern Pacific gray whale numbers drop:

A gray whale in Baja, Mexico

Oceanographers are describing conditions of warmer-than-normal sea temperatures in the North Pacific/Gulf of Alaska and along the west coast of North America that have persisted from 2015 to the present. This temperature anomaly is disrupting the normal seasonal cycle of primary production during the spring and summer months in the high latitudes where the gray whales and other marine life feed. Gray whales depend on the summer abundance of prey to obtain sufficient energy to survive their spring migrations to and from their winter breeding and calving areas. Our observation in the breeding lagoons during the 2018 and 2019 breeding seasons included increased percentages of skinny gray whales and low calf production, and increased mortalities during migration, which suggest that finding sufficient food over the summer is becoming a problem for gray whales.

So what are we doing in 2020? LSIESP researchers will continue to monitor the whales’ abundance and calf births during the winter months in the Baja lagoons and have implemented new research methods to document and evaluate the body and breeding condition of gray whales. UAV-Drones with HD-video allow our researchers to obtaining photogrammetric images to document the health of whales, their length and girth and overall body condition. From photos of the same individuals obtained over the three-month winter, they calculate the rate of weight loss for lactating females and the growth rates of newborn calves. Over time, this data will allow the evaluation of trends in gray whale health and growth during the winter months following their summer feeding in the North Pacific and the Arctic. A comparison of the drone photographs from the past three winters and those obtained in 2020 will provide information on the extent of the effect of the Unusual Mortality Event on the gray whales, the extent of calf decline seen in the lagoons, and if the decline in gray whale body size and reproductive conditions is continuing.”

Scientists studying gray whales in Baja, Mexico.

The nonprofit’s numerous gray whale conservation projects and involvement in the World Marine Mammal Conference stood out as very much aligning with our mission here at Nat Hab, where we seek to inspire conservation through exploration and education. We are glad to help further the work of scientists and student researchers who are playing a vital role in protecting the whales found in this important marine sanctuary. Want to learn more about these gentle giants for yourself? Encounter these massive cetaceans in the company of expert naturalist guides on an Ultimate Baja Whale Expedition.

Scientists on a boat observe a gray whale in Baja, Mexico