Please note - the expedition referenced is no longer running.
Jen Goebel, Earthwatch writer extraordinaire, is in Puerto Rico on a site visit to our new Singing Whales of Puero Rico expedition, studying humpback whale songs.
It's one of the tough parts of her job, going on expeditions and then writing about them for our web and print publications. You may remember her last adventure with Grevy's zebras in Africa, which she documented in The Expeditioner, our eNewsletter for members.
Now Earthwatch has forced her to leave her beloved New England in February to spend a week doing scientific research on a tropical island, and she's promised to write home every day and tell us all about it.
We did see whales today, from the lighthouse, which is our on-shore lookout station. Up until today, the researchers didn't know if the whales were back yet. None of the dive boats or fishermen had reported seeing them, so we were actually surprised when we spotted some blows in the distance.
At first it was just one whale, and it dove, and came back about 12 minutes later, which Principal Investigator (PI) Jennifer Schneider said probably indicated it was singing. Single whales that dive and surface in the same place are usually the singers.
Then, a few minutes later, we saw a series of four blows, two sets of two, which meant there were at least two whales very close together, which could be mother and calf.
Then, 10 minutes after that, we saw seven blows - and through the binoculars I saw a small fluke diving down, so I think it probably was a mother and calf, possibly joined by the first single whale. Our last sighting was of nine blows, so who knows how many had come together at that point.
Tomorrow, we go out with hydrophones and do the first recordings of the season - and hope we find whales.
The morning briefing.
First singing whales confirmed! This morning as PI Jennifer Schneider and volunteer Tish were out in the boat listening to shrimp (they crackle, audio file to come), Tish heard a strange doo-woop sound, and turns out it was a singing whale. We didn't find the whale, but recorded a good bit of its song.
From shore, all we saw were some birds, an inquisitive iguana, a fish jumping out of the water, and lots and lots of surfers.
Best part of yesterday's briefing with PI Eddie Mercado? Definitely listening to him to give us samples of various whale song sounds.
I feel the call of the hammock....
Will continue to deliver fast-breaking updates as events warrant.
Today was wet. Going out this morning on the skiff was rather bouncy, due to what they call in the biz a bit of "weather." We got aboard Pochi's fishing skiff this morning, and it was lovely, clear blue skies and calm waters. It didn't take long for the wind to start, waves to come up, and small whitecaps to appear. But, I had taken my dramamine this morning, and so I was not sick, but was completely drenched by the spray coming over the bow. Ah, the joys of field research. Note to future volunteers: bring a raincoat.
We stopped at two points, the lighthouse and Mayaguez Bay, to record sounds with the hydrophones. Mostly what we heard was water slapping against the boat and light crackling sounds, more shrimp? No songs today. Pochi and I spotted blows several miles away several times, but we never came close. For some excitement, Patchouly took sea temperature readings at 10 m intervals, which took a long time, especially the winding back in of the fishing line. Pochi recommended that we get a "Cuban yo-yo" to make the process go faster, and amazingly enough, they sell these things at K-Mart.
On shore, Jennifer and Tish had better luck, seeing whale blows several times from the lighthouse and a full breach! They made it home first, and were enjoying the sun on the beach in front of the house when we returned.
When the whales are traveling, as they may have been today, they are apparently usually not singing.
After lunch, Patchouly and I headed up to the lighthouse for our on-shore observations, while Jennifer and Tish entered data. The most exciting thing we saw was a really cool hermit crab. It sprinkled, then rained, then poured, and the data sheets, which have nothing worth noting on them anyway, are a little soggy. Another note to future volunteers: An umbrella might be handy.
Tomorrow is our half-day off, so after a morning of lighthouse-based observations, we're heading off horseback riding and down to the phosphorescent bay in the evening to check that out. Will report back.
Another morning of lighthouse observations. The whales were not very cooperative, only blowing in areas not covered by our bench stations, but we know they were there. A hummingbird came by to distract us, as did numerous surfers, but we perservered through these difficult times and made our observations.
In the afternoon, we had our free half day, and went horseback riding with a company called "Pintos R Us," run by a German woman who came here via New York. The brochure promised us "spirited" horses, but I think what we got was more along the lines of "quirky," at least speaking for Junior, the one I rode. The horses are called "pintos" meaning "painted" and are splashed with brown and white, and do a walk called "paso fino" or fine walk, which is a sort of modified trot-walk, and supposed to be smoother than a trot. Earlier in the week, as we were filling out the Earthwatch-required 37-page Risk Assessment Tool, we had to come up with risks for free time - falling off a horse was one. And guess what, I did. As we were galloping across a field, Junior felt Alberto coming up behind him, and not liking anyone near his rear quarters, lurched to the side, and off I went. No damage done, just a bruise on my hand, luckily. But the ride was otherwise lovely, and took us along three beaches and through a rainforesty-type area.
In the evening we went on a hunt for the Phosphorescent Bay we had heard about. Several wrong turns along roads not on our map later, we found it - and joined dozens of other thrill-seekers on a large catamaran headed toward the bay. And it was truly amazing - one of the tour leaders jumped into the water and swam around so we could see the phosphorescence all around him. They brought up a bucket of water, too, and when you swirled your fingers in it, the water lit up like a sparkler. Pretty amazing stuff.
We left at 6:45 am to meet Pepe, our boat driver for the morning. Pepe runs a charter boat business, and has his own 32-foot boat with 2 300 horsepower engines, much bigger than the boat we were on before. Out for about 10 minutes, we were spotted by a helicopter that circled us until we were approached by a police boat. We pulled over for the police boat, while the officers checked our documents, and then we were off in search of whales. At our first stop, we heard one singing very faintly. At our second stop again, we heard it faintly. Since we heard from a fishermen over the radio that he didn't see any to our north, we went south, where we heard just the usual sounds of crackling shrimp. For our last stop, we headed north again, and the whale did some more faint singing for us to record. We put two hydrophones in the water to listen, and from the two recordings, the researchers believe that they will be able to triangulate the whale's location.
In the afternoon, we had our farewell talk from Dr. Mercado, where he revealed to us that he is a maverick in the scientific community since he believes that whale songs may be a form of echolocation, rather than a mating call as currently thought. He believes that the song is mostly important to the whale singing, and is trying to determine what kind of echos from their songs the whales hear and what information they may get from that. As I will no doubt expound on this at a later date, I will leave you to ponder this for now: What if whales are using their songs for echolocation, and we are interfering, with our sonar and engine noises and underwater drilling, with their abilities to find food and each other