Capturing whales on camera
I wake up to the sound of the wind buffeting against the side of my tent. The wind is unrelenting here in the coastal desert on the shores of Laguna San Ignacio, but I have been here a week and I am used to it.
The sun is shining and I am looking forward to getting out on the water and spotting some whales. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and head off to the palapa (an open, thatched hut) for some breakfast. While I am waiting for the others to arrive I look out of the window and watch the ospreys fly by with their freshly caught fish.
There is an air of excitement at breakfast; a new group of seven volunteers has just arrived and everyone is eager to see their first whale. As usual, after breakfast we break into three groups of four volunteers, and my group will be the first to head out on the water. Thirty minutes later we have our life jackets on and we're wading out to the open skiffs called pangas that will take us out to the observation area. Today our pangaro is Ramon and he smiles at us as we jump into his panga.
It takes about 20 minutes to get out to Punta Piedra where we will start looking for whales. During the ride out we make sure that our cameras are all set to the same time as the Global Positioning System (GPS) we have brought with us, so that the pictures we take can later be matched up to our location on the lagoon. Three brown pelicans skim the water alongside us for a moment and then veer away as we slow down to radio the control point at Punta Piedra. Once we have checked in we have 60 minutes to try to photograph as many different grey whales as we can for the catalogue.
We scan the surface of the water looking for spouts. Someone spots a blow off the bow of the boat; it is a mother and calf heading out towards the mouth of the lagoon. We move a little closer and everyone is snapping away trying to get that elusive, perfect flank shot that is ideal for photo-identification. The whales dive and are gone. We head off closer to the mouth of the lagoon and come across a mother whale floating on the surface. The waves are rocking her body gently back and forth as she rests on the surface of the water. Her calf is swimming around her and when he sees us he swims right up to the boat. This is what makes Laguna San Ignacio so special - the "friendly" whales that come close to the pangas.
We have work to do so we head off again in search of more flank or tail (fluke) photos that we can use for photo-identification. I get some good shots, but all too soon our hour is up and Ramon tells us we have to go back. As we speed back towards camp we pass two bottlenose dolphins, brant geese, and a double-crested cormorant. Satisfied with our morning's work we head off to the palapa for lunch.
After lunch it is off to the lab to process our photographs. I sit down at one of the laptops to transfer my pictures from my memory card to a central hard drive, then I use a program written by the lead scientist, William Megill, to crop them. I have taken 75 shots out on the water, and each one needs to be cropped so that the whale flank or tail is centred and takes up most of the frame. Once the cropping is complete, I start grading the cropped photos that are in the database, using another of William's programs. I assign a letter grade to each photo depending on the quality; A represents the perfect shot, and E photos that cannot be used at all.
I grade about 100 pictures, but it is hot in the lab so I take a break to get some air.
Outside a table is set up with cafeteria trays where two of my fellow volunteers are sifting through piles of sand looking for organisms. Each day one of the teams goes out with William and takes 12-18 samples from the bottom of the lagoon. These samples are treated with formaldehyde and processed the following day. I sit down in front of one of the trays, pick up a pair of tweezers and pick out from between the grains of sand tiny shrimp and worms. After the tray is processed, the tiny jars containing the organisms are filled with ethanol, labelled and put in a box to be shipped back to William's lab in Bath, UK, for identification.
I go through three more trays and then there are no more samples left, which is good news because the sun is getting low in the sky. After a day of sun the solar showers are nice and hot, so I head off to clean up before dinner. To conserve the fresh water supply, we are limited to one shower every other day, so as you can imagine we all look forward to "shower days". As I fill my bucket with warm water, I look out over the lagoon at the whale spouts in the distance. I am glad I had the opportunity to come to such a unique and amazing place.
Jen Tweddell from the Netherlands joined the Earthwatch expedition, Among Baja's Grey Whales, in March 2008.