Cascadia Research in Costa Rican Waters:
EXPEDITION TO DETERMINE THE MATING AND CALVING GROUNDS
OF BLUE AND HUMPBACK WHALES
5-11 December 1998: Re-position research vessel from home base in San Francisco Bay to San Diego. Identify humpback whales in route both north and south of Monterey Bay. Work with Dr. Don Croll of Univ. Calif. Santa Cruz in Monterey Bay to calibrate hydro-acoustic sonar.
27 December 1998 - 6 January 1999: Move boat from San Diego to staging area in Zihuatanejo, Mexico
7 -12 January 1999: Provision the ship and meet rest of scientific personnel and National Geographic crew.
13 January 1999: Depart Zihuatanejo, Mexico for the Cost Rican Dome. On the way out of the harbor we deployed the hydrophone and heard humpback whales singing. We then sighted three humpback whales traveling together. Because humpback whales have rarely been photographically identified (see Photo-identification) this far south in Mexico, we were pleased to be able to obtain excellent identification photographs of all three whales.
13-17 January 1999. Sail and motor more than 500 miles (traveling 24 hours a day) angling offshore. The weather has been nice with fairly calm seas. It has gotten very hot (over 90F) and we stop daily for a 15 minute swim break.
17 January 1999, 1500h. Arrive at our official starting point for our search at 10 degrees N latitude and 99 degrees W longitude. Our study area stretches between 8-11 N latitude and 90-100 W longitude. This consists of the Costa Rican Dome and waters west where blue whales have been sighted in the past. This area encompasses more than 100,000 square miles.
18 January 1999. This is our first full day of searching in our study area. We find no blue whales but near the end of the day locate sight a Brydes whale, a fairly rare baleen whale that lives in warmer waters.
19 January 1999. In the morning find a group of five killer whales with a slick in the water emanating from their location. This suggests something has been killed here but we do not see any traces other than the slick. The killer whales are extremely active and as we launch our 14-foot inflatable they begin to travel rapidly. We follow them and obtain a few identification photographs and also some underwater recordings of vocalizations before moving on. At 1526, we sight our first blue whale of the trip. We launched our 14-foot inflatable and were able to obtain excellent identification photographs and samples of sloughed skin. When we deployed our hydrophone we heard loud rhythmic thumps that are one of the calls blue whales make.
20 January 1999. Conditions were windier today allowing us to cover more ground sailing. In the afternoon we spotted some huge splashes on the horizon. We could not see the body of what was making these splashes but we suspected based on their large size and the speed at which they were moving that these were two large blue whales moving at high speed. We were unable to catch up with them to verify this.
21 January 1999. Another windy day allowing us to continue sailing on north and south transects as we slowly progress eastward across the study area. No large whale sightings today but we made several sightings of dolphins.
22 January 1999. Ended the day at 8:46N latitude and 96:26W longitude. We had excellent sighting conditions today but saw no large whales. Sighted a group of rough-toothed dolphins that came over to the boat. Although we are discouraged by the lack of blue whale sightings the last two days, we have yet to reach the half-way point in our search of this huge area.
25 January 1999. The 23rd was an eventful day. The morning began with first completely calm day we have seen. I immediately spotted several killer whales and we got both photo-ID shots and recordings of vocalizations. Shortly after that we spotted a blue whale. We launched the small boat and after finding the whale discovered it was two. We obtained photo-ID shots and sloughed skin from both animals. Jordy, the National Geographic Television cinematographer was out with us and obtained some nice underwater film using the a "pole-cam". Other blows were seen in the distance. It seemed things were finally going our way. Then the wind picked up and several squalls came through the area, at one point we saw two water-spouts (funnel clouds) within a few miles. By late in the day things had become quite rough. Just after dark we lowered the main sail to double-reef it for the higher wind. We are not sure what went wrong but as we reefed it a gust of wind tore a rip across the sail.
We fired up the engine and prepared for an at sea repair. At 2300 I noticed the engine was not putting out the right number of amps and that oil pressure was down. After a late-night with Todd and Crow working on the engine we discovered there the engine is loosing oil. Now a few days later we suspect it is a combination of factors, some of which we are working to solve. For now we are only using the engine minimally.
We are in no immediate danger and have quite a few options still available. We have, however, tentatively made the decision to terminate the survey. We are 700 miles west of Puntarenas, Costa Rica and it is primarily into the wind, a very hard direction for us to go without heavy engine use and without a main sail. Our closest port with likely the most favorable wind conditions is Acapulco, Mexico, just 500 miles to the north. We will decide within the next day whether this is our destination. It is a painful decision for it means not searching over the dome itself and likely spells the end for the humpback leg of the trip, since we will be out of position and in need of repairs. The email system takes a lot of power to transmit and we may need to conserve power so we do not have to run the engine. My emails may have to be shorter and less frequent. It is currently 1030 on 25 Jan and we are at 9N and 96:30 W and headed NNW toward Acapulco.
24-30 January 1999. Return transit the 550 nmi to Acapulco, Mexico to make repairs to the sail and engine. This meant an early end to the search of the Costa Rican Dome. Heading to Acapulco instead of Costa Rica was necessary because it was 200 miles closer, had better repair facilities, and was a more favorable direction (NW) given the prevailing E-NE winds than Costa Rica (NE). Weather during the return voyage was generally favorable, although seas of about 12-15 feet were common during the initial part of the transit. Trip was generally successful although sample sizes were small due to early termination (see Accomplishments).
1-17 February 1999. Complete repairs to the sail, engine, and gaff boom of the Russamee in Acapulco. During this period conduct several marine mammal surveys in the region. Sight humpback whales, bottlenose, and spotted dolphins.
18 February 1999. 0600 depart Acapulco and begin survey leg for humpback whales heading along the coast for Costa Rica.
19 February: Two sightings of humpback whales
today. One group of three at 15 57N, 97 50W,
and one group of two at 15 52N, 97 19W. Obtained identification photographs of 2 or 3 of the first groups but none from the second group.
20-22 February: Reach Huatulco on the west side of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and wait for weather window to cross this region. The gulf is famous for the high winds and seas (named Tehuantepeckers) that are generated by pressure gradients between the Caribbean and Pacific sides of Central America that funnel through the mountain passes north of the gulf. During these winter months these generate extended periods of high winds (sometimes greater than 50 knots). One strategy is to hug the shore during the crossing where the winds may be high but the seas have not had a chance to build.
23 February: Departed before daylight to begin crossing gulf. Although weather was nice for the initial part of the crossing, the window was just long enough to give us beautiful weather up to where we entered the inner most part of the gulf where the wind was 40 knots. We found a Brydes' whale in the morning but no humpback whales. Also had a bad experience with two boats that came alongside in the flat calm, one boat on either side. The next thing we knew people were climbing onto our boat uninvited, making us a bit uneasy. When the boats left, some equipment including a nice pair of Fujinon binoculars were also gone.
24 February: The weather calmed down quite a bit overnight and we actually had really pleasant conditions most of the day, but we are still not out of the gulf. We had a humpback whale singer today at 15 44N and 93 33W that we heard with the hydrophone. Spent about six(!) hours trying to find it, and found two other whales in the process. Never got any id's, but got 36 minutes of song recorded.
25 February: Spent the day in Puerto Madero getting fuel and cleaning the fuel filter system. After our one incident with unwelcome cisitors, we are pretty paranoid of approaching boats. On the way into Puerto Madero we were approached by a small boat that ran off our port stern about 15 meters away for about 5 min. They didn't wave or anything and one of the guys had a mask over his face and head with just his eyes showing for a while, then he took it off. The name of the boat was Pirata 6. Only two of us were awake (Todd and Annie) and it was a little spooky. They finally waved to Annie as they drove off.
26 February: We just had our first Guatemalan humpback whales today. The first was at 14 02N and 91 52W in 114 feet of water and was travelling steadily 300 deg at 3.0 knots. We obtained good photo-ID shots of this animal and two others that we spotted just before sunset.
27 February: Encountered another humpback whale off Guatemala and obtained a good identification photograph.
28 February: Had a sighting today of two humpback whales off El Salvador at 13 01N and 88 17W. We definitely got one identification photograph and a marginal shot of the second whale. We spent almost three hours waiting for them to fluke up. One of them did several times, but the second one just barely lifted its tail once. They were heading directly into the glare too, which made it difficult. They were very cooperative though in surfacing right in front of the boat nearly every time. We were all so happy! So that makes four identified humpback whales off of Guatemala and two off El Salvador, plus the samples from southern Medico and southern Costa Rica (from the Oceanic Society trips). Already the making of an excellent sample. We'll be in Nicaragua by tomorrow morning. We're only 180 miles away from our final waypoint in northern Costa Rica.
1 March: Continued south along the coast of Nicaragua. We made several sightings of marine mammals but no large whales.
2 March: Saw 10 humpback whales today as we crossed into the Gulf of Papagayo, off northern Costa Rica. Definitely got identification photographs of 8 whales, and possibly all 10. It was a great day and we actually had to leave whales early so that we could make it into Coco by sunset. We're all pretty happy about our excellent day, although it was a bit exhausting and most of us got little sleep as the first whales showed up right after sunrise and the sightings never stopped! This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The coastline is like a tropical version of the Washington outer coast.
3-9 March: Anchor at Playa del Coco in northern Costa Rica to obtain provisions and fuel, make repairs, as well as exchange personnel. Frank Garita, a Costa Rican biologist who has been aboard for the survey down from Mexico, will be getting off. George Kurzman and Emily Walton will be joining Todd, Kristin, Annie, and Lydia for the next leg.
10 March: Depart for a return to the Costa Rican Dome on route back to Mexico. This will provide one more opportunity to survey the area utilized by blue whales and cover the eastern portion of the study area that was not surveyed in February due to boat problems. hours. Before leaving, we met with two Costa Ricans, Jason and Andre, who have been collecting humpback whale photographs that they can share with us for our research. We headed out of Costa Rica at about 1300 headed for an initial waypoint at 8 34N and 90 53W (300 miles and 2-3 days away).The winds were gusty and fairly high all morning but once we got a little offshore pretty much died. No whales today, only large manta rays.
11 March: Our current position is 9 22N and 88 38W at 1900 on a course of about 240. The weather has been fair although we started to get some steep swells last night that were likely from the Papagayo winds, but the winds have not been more than 15kt. Everyone is doing well, a few people not feeling well in the swell but generally ok. We have had trouble connecting by radio to send and receive email.
12 March: We continue to have trouble getting online. We had a good day today. The morning started out with a large balleen whale right after sunrise at 8 54N and 89 55W. We lost it somewhere in the 5 foot swell and glare. Then mid morning we had a sighting of some beaked whales. 8 52N 89 16W. They were about 7 meters, with one slightly smaller. They were a golden tan, with falcate dorsal fins, heads slightly lighter than the rest of the body. All of this sounds like ziphius, but Annie says there was a distinct long beak (longer and more slender than bottlenose whales) and a slightly bulbous head. At least one had a dorsal fin darker than the rest of the body and there were no scratches or marks on the body. The big news of the day is...one more blue whale ID at 8 52N, 90 39W. The whale was surfacing erratically, and staying down between 5 and 12 minutes. It was extremely difficult to photograph because of the 5 foot swell. After 3 hours we finally got both left and right sides! We saw reddish brown poop in the water suggesting it was feeding, but couldn't collect any. Recorded with the hydrophone for 15 minutes.. We will be on a course of 300 tonight. We are at 8 56N, 90 44W and 1830.
13 March: Had a great day today, Beaufort 1-2 all day, and a total of 7 blue whales! The first whale was at 0700 this morning, 8 41N and 91 25W. We followed it and were able to get ID shots but decided to launch to collect skin. Right after we launched, we spotted a second group, and the initial sighting turned out to be a pair of whales. We then had a third sighting in the distance. It was very difficult to keep track of them all, and we spent the next 6 hours tracking them. In the end we think there were 6 whales, and we got at least five good ID shots, maybe all six. We also got four skin samples. Then we had another sighting in the afternoon 8 29N, 91 33W. We launched the Achilles again and got both sides, a fluke, and skin samples. Recorded for 15 minutes but couldn't hear anything while we were recording. So that's a total of 7 whales today. I guess we are in a hot spot! We will continue to zig zag our way west keeping in mind our fuel and time. Tonight we will sail slowly to conserve fuel, but probably make 25 miles or so.
14 March: We had some more nice weather today and 5 more blue whales sighted with 3 more IDs obtained. We surveyed from 8 16N 91 59W to only 8 28N 92 17W. We also obtained skin samples from three whales. Some of the whales were staying down for long periods (one for 28 minutes) and they were just close enough to each other to make it confusing. So the past two days we have spent most of our time with whales, not really on transect, so we will need to make more headway in the next few days. Tonight we are heading 300 and will probably move about 30 miles. Forecast looks like out good weather may be ending.
15 March: Surveyed today from 8 37N 92 49W to 8 42N 93 19W. We had two blue whale sightings today, got IDs and skin from one of them, but the second one we lost. The swells are getting bigger out here, but the winds have not increased too much; we are still at 10-12 knots at most. Seems like maybe we moved out of the hot whale area, as the sightings were in the morning and we didn't have any all afternoon. At 2130 we were at 8 46N, 93 27W.
16 March: We are starting the 640 nmi leg back to Mexico (Zihuatenejo). Today, we arrived within 100 miles of the location we had reached in the first leg when we were coming from the west, so we have completed the search of the study area. We do not want to linger because we have also found some stress in the stainless steel where the running backstay is bolted to the starboard side. We have taken the main down and won't be using it until we get this welded in Mexico. The weather has deteriorated so it feels like the right time to start heading in. We didn't find any whales today but conditions were marginal (Beaufort 4-5 and 8 foot swell.). We feel really good about what we accomplished but are still sad to be heading back. We anticipate it will take about 6 days to cover the 640 nmi to Zihuatenejo. Position at 2000 was 9 25N, 94 52W.
17 March: We are still headed north at a good rate although seas are still sloppy with 10-15 knts of wind. It is not the nicest ride but everyone is doing all right. No more whales to report. At 1900 were at 11 15N, 96 09W.
18 March: Our luck changed today and we had excellent weather. Beaufort one and little bothersome swell. We had an excellent sighting of striped dolphins today. We were able to get fairly close to them and got some footage. At 1930 we were at 12 57N, 97 47W.
19 March: We have slowed down a bit and seem to be going against some current. We still hope to reach Zihuatenejo sometime on the 22nd. We had a Bryde's whale today late in the afternoon that came fairly close to the boat. It was nice to see a whale after several days without. At 2000 our position was 14 14N, 98 49W.
20 March: At 2030, we are at 15 41N, 99 57W and continue making slow progress north.
21 March: We continued north today at a slow speed (2-4 knots). By evening we have reached 16 58N and 100 56W and are about 50 miles south of Zihuatanejo. We will surely be there tomorrow sometime, unless some weather comes up.
22 March: Arrive in Zihuatenejo and begin re-provisioning and checking on repairs to the back stay. Everyone is a little tired and in need of a break.
23 - 26 March: Successfully complete repairs to back stay and obtain provisions and fuel. George returns to Olympia after having been a great help during the last leg.
27 March: Depart Zihuatenejo in afternoon and begin working our way northwest up the coast. With prevailing winds and seas working against us, progress is slow.
28 March: At 2010, we were at 17 15N, 103 11W. We are tacking back inland now, and have figured by tacking we can make approximately 80 miles a day up the coast. We did not do any crow's nest watch today due to the swell.
29 March: At 1700, we were at 18 11N, 104 16W. We had some light winds last night and were able to take down the sails and head right into the breeze and swells. Finally able to head exactly where we wanted to go. Still making about 4 knots right into it which is better than making 5-6 on a course 55 deg. off of where we want to go. The wind has picked up to about 12 knots this afternoon so we have to fall off again. Seem to be averaging about 60-70 miles made good in a day. The course makes it very difficult to do crows nest watches, as we plunge off a swell and down into a trough over and over. We are observing from the cockpit and have only seen one Brydes whale. It was quite a nice encounter as the animal came up on its side several times right next to the boat and almost seemed to be bow riding for a few minutes before it cut across our bow.
30 March: At 1930, we were at 19 23N, 105 46W.
31 March: At 2100 we were at is 20 49N and 107 18W. We have had a day and a half of light winds and good progress and have now had to fall off again due to 15 knot head winds. Some big seas here but not much wind to go with it. Our current position is 100 miles south southeast of Cabo
2 April: Arrive at Cabo San Lucas
4 April: We left Cabo on schedule, at 0440 this morning. There were 30 knot winds and large seas for the first few hours, I think a phenomenon of the cape. We found a nice course tacking west and our position by evening was 22 34.5N and 110 59W. We will stay on this course until morning and then tack back northeast. Everyone is doing fine, a little unprepared for the chilling weather.
5 April: We haven't made it very far in the last 2 days but just got a favorable wind shift that lets us point higher toward Magdelena Bay as we tack back in toward shore. The wind has been a consistent 15 knots so we continue to motor sail. Pretty slow going. Hopefully we will get a couple of calm days so we can motor straight where we want to go. Our position at 1850 was 23 09N and 111 53W.
6 April: Looks like we will be making it into Mag Bay by nightfall. Will leave at about 5 am so to cover that area and off Cabo San Lazaro in the daylight. We can also use a little time at a calm anchorage to do some things to the boat and engine. Finally this morning the wind and seas were down and we made good way in the right direction!
7 April: We left Mag Bay at 0500 and found whales right outside the bay, both gray and blues. Got 5 IDs of blue whales before the wind picked up to 25 gusting 30. That forced us to head up to Santa Maria Bay and anchor off the lagoon. We are hoping to leave tomorrow morning bright and early again provided the wind is down a bit.
8 April: Stayed in Santa Maria bay waiting out 25 knot winds.
9 April: We tried to leave Santa Maria last night. It seemed like things were diminishing and all the boats in the anchorage were leaving. We got about 22 miles towards Turtle bay when the main ripped again in 25 knots of wind. By that time the seas were getting pretty big, 8-10 feet and close together. We tried to head towards San Juanico, but we were only moving at 1 knot per hour. So we turned around and we are back in Santa Maria again. Winds are 25-30 with some 35 knot gusts but we are snug at anchor.
10 April: We have spent the day in Santa Maria Bay waiting for 15 ft swells to go down. The skies have cleared and the winds are down to about 15 knots tonight so we should have a good try at getting out of here tomorrow.
11 April: We left Santa Maria bay this morning for Turtle Bay where we will take on some more fuel. The forecast is favorable however there is the standard 10-15 knot breeze blowing and a fairly short chop of about 6'. We found about 9 blue whales today however only got 2 IDs. Following blue whales at our speeds quickly became frustrating. Our current position is 25 07N and 112 35W.
12 April: Still heading NNW. The wind has come up again today to 20-25 so we had to fall off on a course toward San Ignacio lagoon. Will be off the lagoon tonight at midnight at which point we will tack back to the west. Our current position at 2000 is 26 17N and 113 15W. Hope to be in Turtle Bay in a couple of days.
13 April: Almost made it to Turtle bay and the seas had laid down nicely this morning when all of a sudden the wind picked up to 25-30 again. Fortunately we were near an island that we could anchor behind (Isla Asuncion). Our next tack off shore was going to be a bad one so we are anchored and will leave at the first sign of calmer weather. Our position here is 27 06N and 114 17W. It is only about 50 miles to Turtle Bay where we will take on fuel.
14 April: We pulled into Turtle Bay this morning at about 1000 hours. The tide is too low to get fuel until tonight at 1800 hours. We will get fuel and evaluate the weather and possibly head north tonight.
15 April: Made some good progress last night after getting fuel at Turtle Bay. The wind came up again during the day to between 15 and 20 - not too bad. We are currently (1800) at 28 50 and 115 15 and on a course of 250. No whales today.
16 April: We finally got a good weather window, unfortunately there is no visibility with it. Sounds like the fog has settled in on southern California and baja. We eventually got a mile of vis this afternoon, but looks like the fog will be back tonight. The swells are virtually non-existent and the wind is between 10-15 so we have been making about 4 knots since leaving Turtle Bay. At this rate we have about 30 hours until we reach Ensenada.
17 April: Another day of incredibly thick fog. We made great progress due to the 2-3 foot swell and no wind. The fog finally cleared at about 1600 hours but all we saw was a minke whale. We reached the Ensenada area late in the evening.
18 April: Complete our paperwork and leave from Ensenada in the afternoon to complete final few section of trip to San Diego.
19 April: Arrive in San Diego early in the morning.
END OF LEG