The Giants of the Atacama Desert

Latest update March 31, 2019 Started on February 5, 2019

Every year blue whales and fin whales arrive to the driest desert of the world for feeding. I aim to study site fidelity, habitat use and anthropogenic threats, such as marine traffic, affecting the welfare of these giants.

February 5, 2019
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In The Field

We remember as yesterday the moment we saw a group of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Mejillones Peninsula. Two adult males, one calf, one juvenile and one female followed us in our boat. The juvenile was very curious and approach to the boat then I got to take this picture.
Killer whales in Chile are very unknown. Sightings are most common in the southern of Chile where killer whales approach to the coast to feed salmon. However, in the North we see them once a year, eating sea lions (Otaria flavescent) when they approach to the fishing boats to eat anchovy. In the direst desert of the world we see also de biggest of the dolphins, the killer whale.

This is super exciting! Thanks for sharing your encounter

Last week we had the amazing visit of two humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding in Mejillones Bay. This is first record of lunge feeding behavior of humpback whales at this latitude. They were during 7 days feeding anchovy (Engrauli ringens). Lots of sea lions, sea birds and dolphin joined the humpback whales in their feeding strategy. It is very important to protect anchovy in this region, as is key stone species of Humboldt Current System. We aim to stop fishing effort into the bay to guarantee the arrival of big whales to Mejillones every year for feeding.

La semana pasada tuvimos la increíble visita de dos ballenas jorobadas (Megaptera novaeangliae) alimentándose en la Bahía de Mejillones. Este es el primer registro del comportamiento "lunge feeding" de ballenas jorobadas en esta latitud. Estuvieron durante 7 días alimentándose de anchoveta (Engrauli ringens). Muchos lobos marinos, aves marinas y delfines se reunieron con las ballenas aprovechando esta estrategia de alimentación. Es muy importante proteger la anchoa en esta región, ya que es la especie clave del ecosistema Corriente de Humboldt. Nuestro objetivo es frenar el esfuerzo pesquero dentro de la bahía de Mejillones para garantizar la llegada de estas grandes ballenas para alimentarse todos los años en Mejillones.

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Desde el día domingo hasta hoy hemos visto 2 ballenas jorobada y muchos delfines alimentándose en la Bahía de Mejillones.

Posted by Juan Antonio Menares Henriquez on Friday, March 15, 2019

May I introduce you the Marine Research Team!

In the next few post I will introduce you to our research team. He is Juan Menares. The director of our NGO (CIFAMAC). He is a local fishermen from Mejillones converted to tourism. He spent his entire life working in the sea which allowed him to know well all marine species and its habits. He was the first person in the village converted to tourism and develop nautic sports such as aquatic ski or wakeboard in Chile!!! He realized how overfishing drived the depletion of many fishes in the área, thus he become tourist and naturalis pasionated. He has a big activist heart, publishing in social networks any spill in the bay or overfishing action. The captain of the boat, without his help and experience we will be unable to develop this Project.

In The Field

Today is a sad day for us.
Yesterday we saw in social networks a stranded dolphin in a beach close to our village. We contact the person and suddenly we were in our way the rescue of the dolphin. When we arrive to the beach we saw a dusky dolphin, with blood in his ear. The rest of the group of dolphins were in the swimming in the beach.

We moved the animal to the rescue center at Antofagasta University where we started the necrospy of the animal. It was a male, 1.76 m length and 58.6 kg. He had a very strong internal bleeding. We examined internal organs and saw the existence of a severe bleeding in his lungs. The stomach was empty just with few sand due to the stranding event. There were no internal parasites or evidence of illness. But the bleeding of his ear was very suspect.

Finally, we stated the cause of death was an underwater explosion that developed the animal fasting and disoriented for a few days until he died in the beach. Local people told us that fishermen were using fishing with explosives and dynamite for the "dorado". This practice is prohibited in Chile, but with no legal inspection, the still performing this horrible fishing.

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How sad to see. It's such a short-sighting way of fishing. I have seen how much damage it does to coral reefs in the Philippines and am so glad no-one does it here.

Yesterday was a very important day for us. As NGO we aim to promote the protection of marine fauna among local people. Science is not just being in the field taking samples or being in a laboratory. Science is to communicate with people the importance of research to protect species and the importance of people to know about the species and their environment. When we work in conservation we have to involve humans in our research, make people empower about the importance to protect the species and their environment. Thus we created the first Marine Fauna Identification Guide of Mejillones Bay. Pictures were taken for us and local people of Mejillones. We delivered the guides among local NGOs, ARMY, Museum, tourism association and town hall. Promoting the importance to know which species inhabits Mejillones Bay and the importance to protect their environment.

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Brilliant work guys! Communication about what lives in our local waters is so important. We are striving to do that on our Black Bream Project through various different media.

We do find however that we have to be careful about what we tell people. If we tell them exactly where certain species are there can be a risk of too much disturbance or being targeted by fishermen. Do you have similar problems there?

Hi Matt, not yet, as there is no wildlife tourism industry in the area. Just three local fishermen offering tours to see wildlife as penguins and sea lions. A couple of years ago none knows about the presence of blue whales in Mejillones Peninsula. I agree, we have to be careful with the information, and provide the correct one. But since we develop environmental education with fishermen and local communities I think we are in the correct way. Tourism and environmental education need to be at the same time.

There are not only giants in the coast of Atacama Desert. In our research surveys we find also one of the smallest cetacean species, Burmeister's porpoise. This porpoise is endemic of South America, from Perú to Uruguay. However, little is known about its abundance, distribution or site fidelity. In the 70's decade, fishermen started to catch Burmeister's porpoise for their consumption. Despite the banned of cetacean catches, nowadays by catch of Burmeister's porpoise still happening in the coast of Chile. When porpoises are in the nets, they die and local fishermen butchered their meat for human consumption or for use it as bait in the shark or crab fisheries.

Last week in our research survey, we found a bay full of Burmeister's porpoises in Mejillones. They were feeding in anchovy and we saw also a calf!! It is very excited to see them in their natural habitat. However, by catch is not the only threat they suffered, marine traffic, underwater noise and pollution may affect their welfare and survival. We aim to determinate the abundance, distribution and site fidelity of Burmeister's porpoise in Mejillones bay, thanks to the fund supported by the Porpoise Conservation Society, Canadá.

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I am very excited to share with all of you our publication regarding marine traffic and collision risk with fin whales and humpback whales in Mejillones Bay. Our study has been published in the Scientific Journal Marine Policy. From land based observation point I characterize the navigation path and speed of large cargo vessels, industrial fishing boats and artisanal fishing boats. In addition I determined density areas of different cetacean species found in the bay such as Burmeister's porpoise, dusky dolphin, long-beak common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso's dolphin, fin whales and humpback whales. I performed a spatial overlap analysis in ArcGis to detect those conflictive areas where cetaceans and navigation paths overlapped.

If you want to reed de article, please feel free to send me an email

Expedition Background

Since I started my PhD in 2014 I have described cetacean species inhabit the coastal upwelling Humboldt Current System in Atacama Desert Coast, Chile. Every year we observe fin whales and blue whales in feeding behavior in very shallow waters close to shore. I was surprised to see fin whales, the second biggest animal of the world, while having breakfast from a restaurant on the beach! I think Atacama Desert coast is one of the few places were fin whales are so close to shore. However, they are affected by numerous threats as marine traffic or pollution in the region. The increasing mining industry in Atacama Desert drives to the building of numerous maritime terminals in the coast shipping supplies as carbon, oil, lead, ammonia or sulfuric acid for the mining proceses. From my land-based research, I determined the presence of fin whales in the bay and the shipping lines path and large cargo vessels speed in Mejillones Bay. The collision risk is imminent, as highest density shipping lines and 95% kernel density distribution of fin whales overlap. However, to promote marine spatial planing and speed regulation I need more evidence of the collision risk. With this project I aim to explore these giants in the sea, detecting marks and propeller scars in the bodies of fin whales and blue whales by using ROV and photo-ID, in order to study their gender and site fidelity, behavior. If the same whales arrive every year for feeding to Mejillones Bay, and they show marks of propeller cuts, that means that they are susceptible to collide with large cargo vessels or fishing boats.

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Looks like a great project. We are also studying site-fidelity of rays on our study site in the UK. ONce the black bream finish nesting the rays return and we can identify individual fish and track them across the years. Please follow us to see more this year!

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