Whale Bones & Ice BugsJuly 1 2018
A team heads to natural whale cemetery composed of over 300 sei whale skeletons in a remote area of the Taitao peninsula in Chile. Once enough bones are secured, Explorer Isaí Madriz will set off on his own to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in search of new insect species.
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Another report from Isaí! Sounds like the weather has been bad, which makes charging his sat phone and other equipment difficult. He says its is cold, the files are everywhere but that the photos and time lapses he's been taking will be beautiful. Hopefully he'll be able to pilot his Trident ROV through a submerged whale skeleton in the next few days - I'm very excited to see what that footage looks like!
Early morning and fresh tracks throughout our camp reveal we have been visited overnight. The tracks belong to Pudús (the smallest species of deer in the world).
I follow the tracks onto the beach where trails of them lead in and out of the adjacent forest through the dunes.
As I continue walking on the beach I find freshwater seeping through the sandstone walls along the ocean’s edge. Adult flies seek refuge from the winter cold in the warmth of the fermenting seaweed left far from water’s edge by the last high tide. I sit quietly among decomposing seaweed observing the flies' fascinating behavior. Hundreds of them congregate in tight spaces among the soft labyrinth as larvae feast on the substrate.
I leave behind the entomological riches and continue the search for whale skeletons for several hours with no success.
We are confined to explore by foot due to bad weather. The Chilean navy has issued a weather alert in the area where we are located. This place is infamous for its ever-changing climatic conditions.
The rain and wind clear long enough for me to look for a snack in the nearest tide pool.
Sitting at the edge of the ocean contemplating the dark clouds heading our way, I enjoy a tasty sea urchin. As I open it up I spot a small purple bag attached to the inner roof of the live urchin. I carefully opened it up and to my surprise I find a bulbous creamed colored crab inside. It seems like it has been developing there all along. The crab is tender to the touch, its exoskeleton is soft. Is it edible? What would it taste like?
I walk back bearing strong wind gusts and hailstorms. I pass by the fermenting seaweed mound, all the flies are safe inside. I wouldn’t mind the smell if I could shelter from the numerous and constant impact of the hail.
I finally reach camp only to find out that the wind took our zodiacs. Being the only one with a dry suit, I have been assigned the task to wade along the coast line in search of them. Luckily I only had to search for several hundred yards, as they ended at the same location as an adult whale skeleton that seems to have been there for many years.
Back at camp my tent shakes violently throughout the night, waking me up multiple times. The hailstorm feels like it will pierce the fabric at any moment. The sound is deafening.
Sand is being blown all around, but at least my tent anchoring technique for deep snow is effective for camping on the sand.
The next morning my nostrils are filled with the fine sand particles that passed through my tent screen. My team tells me the warning is lifted, although, the rain and wind still persists. We decide to venture into the gulf in search of whale skeletons.
After a short search we spot a beach with four skulls. Their bones have been scattered along the 400-yard-long shore.
After a few hours searching for all the bones to put together one skeleton, we take off to a close by location to look for the missing pieces.
Laying on top of each other, three exposed whale skulls invite us to explore the nearest cove. In a 200-yard-long shoreline we counted 11 whale skulls of different sizes. Why here and why so many?
The entrance to the gulf is only navigable on high tide. Did they all enter and could not leave again?
There has been recorded sightings of Orcas chasing Sei whales into shallow coves nearby. Could this have been one of those instances?
As we continue navigating, we spot gulls feasting on a carcass. The stage of decomposition suggests it has been dead for about a year. All its vertebrae are still attached by tendons. The flippers and caudal vertebrae are all intact.
Unfortunately, we must leave and return tomorrow, as nighttime is upon us and it is best not to risk navigating in the dark- the water temperature can kill you in minutes.
Thus far our overall count has increased to 50+ whale skulls and that number is certainly about to increase. Some have been here less than a year while some are so old that they are fragile to the touch.
From calves to adults, the variety and number of skeletons is impressive. Few (if any other) places in the world have this number of baleen whale skeletons in the same location. The mystery as to why this place has become a site where whales come to die will remain one of the greatest mysteries of Patagonia.
Isaí managed to message me today from his satellite phone. The connect was bad because it's raining, but he said the peninsula is amazing - there is even enough surf breaking to ride waves while overlooking the Ice Field. The weather on the way out to the peninsula was very good and fingers crossed that it stays the same for the return trip!
Whale skeletons of all sizes lay forgotten in small sandy inlets sprinkled along peninsula Forelius. Close inspection reveals different rates of bone erosion. How long have these bones been here?
At the western terminal end, a freshly dead dolphin lays on the sand. The new tracks around it show that different species of birds have been feasting on it. No mammal tracks besides our own.
Why is this location a natural whale cemetery? Do different species of cetaceans come here to die? If so why here?
We set camp nearby where only a large sand dune stands between the bay from the mighty Pacific Ocean. The dune separating the bodies of water has been slowly eroded by the constant ocean tides.
Our source of freshwater seeps out of the surrounding wetlands, staining the water brown in color.
With the Northern Patagonia Ice Field on the horizon, the gentle waves in Seno Escondido slowly erode the intact bones of an adult whale.
Swarms of black flies attack us without mercy.
At night, I observe the tide coming in. Rain is expected all day tomorrow. We will stay put and explore the protected bay.
On our way in we counted 21 skeletons and there are many inlets yet to explore.
Isaí just sent me an update - he's finally managed to pack everything he'll be taking to Southern Patagonia. Everything from a Trident ROV to his macro photography equipment!
Tomorrow he departs from Puerto Rio Tranquilo (a 6 hour drive from his home). Then a 1.5 hour drive to Explorers Bay, a 2 hour boat ride to the San Rafael Lagoon, a 1.5 hour hike through swamp, then a 2 hour Zodiac ride to the Forelius Peninsula where the whale cemetery is. On his back he is carrying over 85lbs of gear and less than 5lbs of clothes.
We will travel via motor boat to a natural whale cemetery composed of over 300 Sei whale skeletons. There, the team will be selecting two complete adult skeletons to bring back to the city of Coyhaique, to articulate in the upcoming months for display in the regional museum.
For the duration of 10 days we will gather all the bones and secure them to the vessel. A task that promises to leave our skin smooth (through the whale oils still impregnated in the bones), while being permeated with the essence of carcass.
Once all bones are secured at the field location the team will take them back to the nearest town of Caleta Tortel about 150 miles away.
Even in the tail end of winter, Isaí will also be targeting the aquatic larva of some groups while looking for the exceedingly rare adults of the winter-going insect groups.
In early September, a second expedition transporting a group of whale researchers will return to a nearby area to study live whales that inhabit the gulf of Penas.