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Ecuador Project

Pacific Whale Foundation publication documents year-round presence of humpback whales in Galapagos Islands

eTN Staff Writer  Jun 17, 2009

Quick, when you think of wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, what comes to mind? Thanks to Charles Darwin’s detailed studies, you may think of tortoises, blue-footed boobies, or finches.

But now, a new research publication, co-authored by Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ecuador Project Director Cristina Castro, PhD, presents evidence of another animal found year-round in the Galapagos Islands — the humpback whale.

The publication was presented in late May at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC's) Scientific Committee. The other author on the paper is Godfrey Merlen. WildAid and Parque Nacional Galapagos also provided support. To download the publication, click here.

By analyzing reports of 80 sightings of humpback whales in the Galapagos Islands between 1985 and 2000, Castro and Merlen were able to demonstrate that humpback whales are found around the Galapagos Islands year-round, with the largest numbers of sightings were in July, August, and December. Of the humpback observations, 27.5 percent were in August, 25 percent in July, and 11 percent in September.

The authors cited a number of studies that showed the presence of humpback whales in the Galapagos Islands for parts of the year and drew on data recorded using daily sighting logs (1995-2000) from aboard daily tourist boat rides operating in the Galapagos archipelago, in correlation with direct reports from naturalist guides of the Galapagos National Park. In addition, a portion of the collected data included personal accounts from Godfrey Merlen’s field research. In total, information was collected over a period of 15 years.

The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador. They are a group of islands consisting of approximately 13 large and hundreds of smaller islands, which fall directly on the equator, in an area ranging from approximately 0 degrees 40 minutes north to 1 degree 23 minutes south latitude and 90 degrees 46 minutes west to 89 degrees 41 minutes west longitude.

The humpback whales of the Galapagos Islands are part of a population of humpback whales that live in the Pacific Ocean south of the equator. These humpback whales migrate during the summer from southern high-latitude waters (near Antarctica) where they feed, up to lower latitude regions for the winter months to breed and calve.

Cristina Castro and the Pacific Whale Foundation team primarily study humpback whales found in Machalilla National Park, located on the southern coast of Manabi, Ecuador. This area is known as a breeding area for humpback whales during the months of June through October. To read more about Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Project, click here

“It is not certain whether humpback whales are breeding in the Galapagos Islands, but it is a very real possibility,” said Greg Kaufman, president and founder of Pacific Whale Foundation.

Kaufman notes that the IWC is interested in this data because of Japan's recent push to hunt southern hemisphere whales. "There's a real need to understand the populations of humpback whales that live in the southern ocean, where they feed, mate, and give birth, and what their migratory pathways are, in order for the IWC to effectively manage these whales," he said. "This study about the year-round presence of the humpback whales in the Galapagos is an illustration of how much needs to be learned."

Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project began in 2001, to enhance and support earlier research efforts of Cristina Castro. To date, the project has photo-identified more than 1,300 humpback whales.

In 2007, Castro helped to convince Ecuador’s government to enact a ban on whaling in its nearshore seas. That year, she also helped to bring together all of the nations of Central and South America to sign a pledge against commercial whaling, which was then presented to the International Whaling Commission.

Pacific Whale Foundation's whale research in Ecuador has earned Cristina Castro a seat on the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group that helps to advise the political arm of the IWC. Castro has also brought together researchers working off the west coast of Latin and Central America and now curates a photo-ID catalog (funded by Pacific Whale Foundation) with fluke IDs from Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan (a new feeding area in Chile) ,and the Antarctic Pennisula. A number of ground-breaking new publications have come from this collaboration and have yielded new insight with regard to population size, migratory pathways, rates of interchange, and reproductive dynamics. Castro was also instrumental in helping from the Latin American Humpback Whale Research Group in 2007, a cooperative of researchers from all countries in Latin America.

To read more about Cristina Castro and Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project, please visit our blog titled, "From Ecuador, a Pragmatic Approach to Protecting Whales: Cristina Castro’s Recent Making Waves Lecture Series Presentation"

To donate to Pacific Whale Foundation, click here.

Pacific Whale Foundation publication documents year-round presence of humpback whales in Galapagos Islands
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