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Aug 03
in Underwater, Publications, Conservation, Photo Stories 0 Comments freediving, marine biology, research
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Patagonian Giants

Right whales historically have had a hard time like many other whale species. Humans hunted them almost to extinction in their greed for whale oil. There are actually two species of right whales, the Northern Right whales and Southern Right whales (populations are dispersed over different pockets of our oceans.

The Southern Right Whale population has been recovering well from overexploitation that ended in the eighties (1986) and is referred to as "Ballena Franca Austral" in Argentina. The population in Argentina has been growing at a fast rate since the end of the whaling days although that growth is slowing down currently. The North Atlantic Right Whales however have a much harder time coming back to their original numbers. Human influences like ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are taking a toll on the recovery of this population.

The peninsula Valdez is a safe haven for many marine animals. It is a birthing ground for southern sealions, elephant seals, magellanic penguins and for the Southern Right Whales. The right whales find calm, warm waters that protect them from orca that hunt marine mammals on the outskirts of the peninsula. The shallow depths of the bay make sure predators like orca can not attack from below. Also they provide for the ideal nursing ground for their calfs that need to build up fat reserves before their first journey south to Antarctic waters.

Images of this portfolio are taken in the national park of Peninsula Valdez in Patagonia under permit of the government of the province of Chubut.

Groundbreaking research on the Southern Right Whales was conducted in Patagonia by the famous scientist named Roger Payne. We visited the research station which is located on a remote beach on a stretch of land owned by the Argentinian Navy. Roger Payne was not the least of whale researchers. Roger discovered in 1967 that humpback whales actually sing and played an important role in ending commercial whaling. Roger pioneered the research that now is continued by Mariano Sironi and other scientists.

The research station still contains many of Rogers belongings. It was amazing to see with how much care Mariano handled the belongings of the family Payne, as if they could return any time. For us it was great to have a look into whale research history. The original catalog in which the very first identified whale was recorded, took us right back to 1967.

Genetics research has also reached this remotely located research station although some logistical issues had to be overcome. The research team showed us the steel container which was filled with liquid nitrogen and was holding the samples they had collected. Fun fact: the little packages in which the whaleskin/blubber are stored, are actually created from an ordinary panty hose!

The catalog also contained small B&W images of right whale heads, which were (and still are) used to identify whales. Nowadays the matching is done using software, but imagine how that must have been in the old days! The white patches on the top and sides of the heads of right whales are used to identify individual whales. These patches are formed by small crustaceans called ciamids (aka whale lice) that stick to calluses. The density of the colony of these animals is imense and only visible from close range. Apparently there are three types of Ciamids which vary in color. On adult whales you will find the white ciamids, but on dying or injured whales as well as on young calfs orange ciamids are found (check out one of the photos in the portfolio above). Ciamids have never been found elsewhere so are assumed to exclusively live on whales for the duration of their lives. 

One of the most special things we observed during our stay were two almost completely white calfs and their mothers in the Golfo Nuevo. The two white calfs belong to a special few calfs that are born each year in Patagonia. The calfs are actually partial albino's, meaning that they will not stay white all of their lives. The calves have a shortage of pigmentation, but mostly turn grey (sometimes even black) already in their first year. It literally was a dream come true to photograph this special "freak" of nature...

All images have been taken under permit of the government of the province of Chubut.

Images of this portfolio have been featured in an article of the August 2018 edition of Duiken magazine.

joostvanuffelen's picture
About the Author:
Joost loves the oceans, travelling and (underwater)photography. Combining those three elements he creates ocean art, travel reports and ocean photo stories...

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