Meanwhile Bach on the beach….

by Greg Landreth

Ode to the Whale
Greg plays Ave Maria by Bach on the beach in Puerto Slight where a whale recently washed up dead on the beach.

I know, I know, I did say I was going to write something every day but as Robbie Burns understood, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay. As expected, the beaches are lined with the well rotted corpses of last years mortality and we have been continuing with the original plan of measuring and mapping their positions as well as taking CTD scans (chemical profiles) of the water columns inside and outside the fiords. This is wholly absorbing, steady work, even though Saoirse and the dinghies are ofen widely separated I can oversee their safety while the oceanographic work is proceeding. However we are now starting to enter a new phase of the investigation with the recent granting of permission to the expedition by Sernapesca to conduct necropsies on the whale carcasses. This has now become critically important with the appearance of new whale carcasses on shore, commingled with the ones from last years event. If we are to have any chance of understanding what happened here, the necropsies of this years new deaths moves right to the top of the list.

Compared with a necropsy, all else we have done on this expedition seems squeaky-clean by comparison. Over the years of expeditioning we have done it seems that I have become very good at reducing most activities, such as climbing, photography, whatever has been the aim of the expedition, to a simple time and motion study, working around the weather to achieve the best result that I can. To help with this, the participants themselves judge their activites with simple quantitive measurements. Perhaps it is too complicated to do otherwise. For instance a climber will judge his performance by the height of the mountain, a numerical rating of its difficulty, etc. A photograher’s conversation will be focussed around numbers of gigabytes and locations achieved. Here though, the simple concepts of time and motion come overshadowed by timing and emotion.

Simple creatures are one thing; we put mussels in the blender to test them for red tide without thinking much about it, but the idea of a person diving inside the rotting corpse of a mammal which may turn out to have a consciousness equal to our own has a gravity to it which should certainly cause one to falter and ask, “Why are we doing this?”. Back to the mechanics of it though, we have a lot of new things to think about. For a start, whale carcasses are fully involved with death. Saoirse is where we live and must remain liveable. That means that we need a fundamental change of rhythm to the proceedings each time we contemplate a necropsy. At the start we thought we had come prepared for this eventuality, and the first one we did in Puerto Slight went well. We had excellent weather, Alex, our veterinarian had all tools and protocols prepared, the tide was low, exposing the cuts which needed to made. All team members were suited up in a manner reminescent of the images of the teams of medics dealing with the Ebola crisis. Even so, with perfect conditions and all of the team involved (leaving their own separate studies aside for awhile), the act itself took a full day, still leaving the necessity of doing further dissections onboard. Though we must try to leave all things which involve death on the beach, inevitably there will be a lingering effect on board, bottled up inside specimen jars and people’s emotions.

For me, looking at the act from afar, the scene reminded me not so much of a western  hospital autopsy, but more like what I have read of the Tibetan concept of a sky burial. The slow white suited figures wielding sharp saws and knives contrasted with the black-winged figures of vultures and petrels waiting. Waiting for their chance to carry flesh back to the sky where cleansed, it will fall to earth once more. I thought that perhaps to complete the scene  we ought to be having a benediction from a Tibetan monk, but alas we do not have one aboard.

I decided then that we would have to make our own approximation. What did we have at hand?
Looking around the cabins in saoirse I managed to collect:

  1. My electric cello, bought in Santiago, supplied from China after a European pattern.
    1a) some battery powered speakers, found wanting a home in the Falkland Islands two years
  2. some sheet music, composed some hundreds of years ago, bought a while ago in Toronto and    copied onto a piece of paper of unknown origin with a Swedish printer designed in the USA
  3. A cheap plastic stool, probably made in China, bought in Punta Arenas
  4. A costume composed of cotton trousers made in New Zealand, a shirt made in the USA with wool supplied by Magellanic sheep and some Scandinavian gumboots.
  5. A piece of heavy plywood cut from a failed attept to make a new toilet seat for the boat using a Japanese jigsaw.
  6. A log (local) and a crab claw for adornment, also local.

A pretty good international effort I figured. So that is how I came to be playing my cello version of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” on the beach next to a dead whale in  a place called Puerto Slight, next to a dead whale in Patagonia.  I did the best I could, but thankfully the recording camera mysteriously ran out of batteries and you will just have to take my word for it that it happened.

Eye of the Storm

Eye of a Storm


I haven’t written anything yet for this blog as I have not been able to find the words I need to describe what I have seen in these past weeks.  Photos are the way I communicate my experiences and my personal goal for this voyage is to document through images, all the whales we encounter on this voyage, alive or dead.  The death has outweighed the life part of the equation and is taking a toll.

If a photo can tell 1000 words, then it would take 266,000 words to tell this story so far.   12,000 words would be needed to describe the new whale deaths we have since leaving Puerto Eden three weeks ago.

So until I can bring my photos of words to you, here I attempt a seemingly insignificant few to try to describe what I have seen.

To access the whales for documentation and study, we must leave Saoirse with the Oceanographic Research team and head out everyday as weather allows in the dinghy with Ana, Francisca and either Katie or Alex.  I am the dinghy operator, Ana photographs the whale carcasses, Francisca positions them on the GPS and Alex or Katie sit at the bow watching for rocks.   I also photograph each whale carcass we come across as part of my art project within this whale study project, my ultimate goal being to bring these images and the plight of these whales to the world via photographic exhibitions.

Our days are long, often spending 8 hours or more away from the boat, going along the shore from one whale carcass to another, each person focused on their job of documentation.   When there is opportunity to stop, usually only once during this time as the fiords are very long and there is much distance to cover, Ana and Francisca measure the whale carcasses while Alex collects plants for the stable isotope studies.   With the dinghy safely secured, I focus on taking photos of the whales, strangely fascinated with the artistic way in which they have decayed and how other creatures are sustained by their death.   I am also taking video, trying to bring life and movement into the daily images I am accumulating.

Our first stop on the voyage was in Seno Escondido.  Being one of the main study areas of the project, we spent a number of days there covering the entire fiord in the dinghy and photographing and documenting 61 whale carcasses.  For some reason, the reality of the situation did not disturb me as much as one would have thought.    The discomfort began after leaving Puerto Slight, where we documented another 60 plus dead whales.   And now, after covering 14 nautical miles in the dinghy in Seno Newman and photographing 105 dead whales, I feel what I can only explain as a profound sadness, the disassociation of the war photographer having worn thin.

Seno Newman is like a battle field, rotting and decaying carcasses of whales strewn haphazard from one end of the fiord to the other, some whales already stripped to clean white bones, others with skin mummified in a semblance of form.  The putrefying whales still have remnants of what they once were, a flipper, a tail fluke.  The newly dead whales are the most disturbing.  Whales.  Whales which were just recently swimming, feeding, breaching and living are now washed up like shipwrecks on a lee shore.  They are mostly intact, black velvety skin peeled back by the hundreds of giant petrels feeding on their bloated bodies.  Saucer-sized eyes glazed, vacant, devoid of life glare at me through my camera lens.   These whales  shouldn’t be here.  We shouldn’t be here.   But we need to be here.

My photos and our words are only part of what is needed to take action.  The science that we are accomplishing aboard this vessel is the first and important step in trying to determine what is happening to these majestic creatures.   During our month long expedition we are gathering as much information as we possibly can, pieces of a very complex puzzle, perhaps one we may not be able to solve, but one that we must attempt to solve with all our efforts.

Whales are still dying.  And this is only the early part of the season.   What are we going to find here in April when we return for the second half of our project?

How many more hundreds of thousands of words will my photos be worth then?



February 21, 2016

Unnamed Bay

Eastern Shore

Seno Newman

New Whales Found Dead in Golfo de Penas


The outgoing tide reveals the whole of a recently deceased whale under a Patagonian deluge. Caleta Buena, February 23 (c) Katie McConnell 2016

Febuary 16th, 2016

Writing from Caleta Buena, the small beach where photos and videos of the dead whales in Golfo de Penas first seized international concern.

Caleta Buena is a small watery offshoot of Estero Slight, a long fjord carved into the southern heart of the Taitao Peninsula, on the northwest side of Golfo de Penas. This is the region where Dr. Häussermann first reported 31 dead whales to the Chilean authorities.

IMG_9698Image: V.Hausserman (overflight Golfo de Penas, June 2015)

Since arriving to Slight four days ago, we have been working overtime to revisit every previously reported whale, taking observational measurements of size, state of decomposition, and orientation. Without having completed all surveys for this region, we already have found 27* whale skeletons and believe them to be the skeletons of last years casualties. Of the 337 total reported dead whales, this expedition has already surveyed nearly one hundred.

Perhaps the most poignant finding, however, are 8 newly deceased whales, with 2 reports of more from local fisherman and sailors. Of these eight, 5 are here in Estero Slight.
Of these, three are estimated to have died within the last few weeks. We will right away report this finding to Fiscalia de Aysén and Sernapesca.

Although we came prepared with an extensive study regime, a new embargo placed on the whales last November by Chilean authorities made any manipulation of the whales illegal, thereby crippling a vital component of our current investigation. This embargo was placed because of the existence of a whale protection law in Chile which requires Fiscalia de Aysén, Sernapesca and the PDI to conduct a criminal investigation against whoever may be found responsible for the death of the 337 whales.

Now, the authorities mounted an expedition to survey the whales, taking place this week. In fact, two days ago we made radio contact with their ship as they swiftly passed through the region.

We are grateful to report that yesterday we were notified by satellite email that Sernapesca and Fiscalia de Aysén agreed to grant us permits to sample and perform necropsies on the carcasses, with the agreement that we will share all data only with Sernapesca and cannot make public any data collected or analyzed directly from the whales until the criminal investigation is closed. And so, our specialists have finally been given permission to sample. This is a great step forward towards a well-informed impression of this unique and tragic event.

Next week we will continue NE to Seno Newman, where there are more than 90 whales reported from aerial photographs. We will continue to keep a sharp lookout for new whales and take utmost advantage of the limited time we have left in Golfo de Penas.

–Katie McConnell

*Counts taken from skulls, 1 count was from a jawbone.

Oceanografía en Golfo de Penas

Franco and Seba Checking the CTD

Transcurrían los primeros días del 2016 cuando la Fundación Huinay lanzó una invitación para participar en una expedición científica (HF27) por los canales y fiordos de la Patagonia Chilena. La finalidad principal sería buscar respuestas concretas a la mortalidad masiva de ballenas que ocurrió en la zona norte del Golfo Tres Montes (i.e., Seno Escondido, Seno Newman y Seno Slight). Si bien yo estaba enterado del suceso por los medios masivos de comunicación, la información no era clara respecto a cuál era la magnitud del evento, ni qué tipo de escenario nos ibamos a encontrar. Al llegar al lugar nunca pensé que sería tan interesante hablando desde un punto de vista científico y además emocional. En esta ocasión mi labor como Oceanógrafo sería realizar una caracterización oceanográfica de las propiedades físicas y biogeoquímicas de capa superficial de la columna de agua, midiendo variables como salinidad, temperatura y oxígeno, mediante perfiles continuos realizados con un CTD SeaBird 25, y muestreos discretos de nutrientes (i.e., NO3-, NO2-, PO43- y Si(OH)4) y gases (i.e., N2O, CH4) sobre la capa de mezcla, siendo el regístro de metano muy importante debido a que éste se genera mediante procesos biológicos asociados a la descomposición de los cadáveres de cetáceos. Todas estas muestras serán posteriormente analizadas en el Laboratorio de Biogeoquímica Isotópica de la Universidad de Concepción.

En un comienzo no sabía el grado de importancia del proyecto en el que me estaba involucrando, pero una vez en el lugar pude corroborar con mis propios ojos el por qué de la urgencia de realizar esta expedición. Es impresionante la cantidad de ballenas muertas que se encuentran atrapadas entre los pequeños canales y/o minúsculos islotes característicos del lugar, pero lo más impresionante, es que aún no existe una explicacion clara  en determine la ocurrencia de este fenómeno, ni tampoco existe interés gubernamental de apoyar este tipo de expediciones. Recordemos que anteriormente se detectaron aproximadamente 337 ballenas en las distintas zonas de estudio y hasta ahora llevamos ~65 cadaveres, quedándonos muchas estaciones biológicas y oceanográficas por analizar (es probable que el cómputo final sea aún mayor). En mi caso, teniendo una formación oceanográfica principalmente física y biogeoquímica, esta situación es bastante impactante, ya que pasé de estar horas y horas procesando datos en un computador a interactuar con una disciplina de la ciencia para mi desconocida y mucho más complicada… La observación en terreno de cadáveres de cetáceos en descomposición, donde hay que tener “cuero de chancho” como se dice en Chile; que es equivalente a ser fuerte y aguantar con ímpetud el escenario adverso (e.g., muy malos olores, insectos y grasa de ballenas por todos lados), en definitiva un escenario lamentablemente devastador.

Respecto a las mediciones que hemos realizado con el CTD, preeliminarmente podemos mencionar que son notables las temperaturas superficiales que hemos registrado, en algunos casos han sido muy altas teniendo en cuenta la zona donde nos encontramos (~10 °C, Silva et al., 2002). De 16 estaciones realizadas, la menor temperatura superficial se registró en la posición geográfica de 47° 47.701’ S 74° 57.663’ W, con un valor de 15.7 °C y la mayor temperatura en la posición 46° 50.050’ S 74° 35.260’ W, con un valor impresionante de 21.2 °C, ambas en la zona del Seno Escondido. Para explicar esto rápidamente y sin mayor análisis, un oceanógrafo culparía al fenómeno climático y oceánico que estamos viviendo hoy en día, el mayor “El Niño” registrado en la historia, recordemos que este es un fenómeno generado en el Pacífico Ecuatorial, pero que transmite sus consecuencias hacia gran parte del globo terráqueo, entre ellas a la zona del pacífico sur oriental (austral).

La expedición hasta ahora ha sido maravillosa, el clima en esta región es muy cambiante, ya que podemos tener una linda mañana de sol navegando por los canales australes, pero en el transcurso de unas horas se desata una lluvia que en la zona  central de Chile (lugar donde vivo) no se ve. Como anécdota puedo contar que tuvimos que realizar una de las más temidas de las estaciones programadas: casi en la mitad del Golfo de Penas!! (47° 1.863’ S 74° 55.952’ W), con un viento constante de 20  nudos y rachas de 30 nudos!!, el movimiento del velero no impidió que pudiésemos realizar nuestro hermoso perfil de CTD a 100 m de profundidad, además del muestreo de gases y nutrientes, muy valioso para nosotros porque son pocos los que se atreven a caracterizar este movido y temido Golfo, acá mayormente conocido como “Golfo del Vómito”.

Aún quedan muchas millas que navegar y muchos perfiles y estaciones que realizar, el ánimo está cada vez mejor, el trabajo grupal es lo mejor de la expedición, todos provenimos de distintas áreas donde nos llenamos y aprendemos un poco de todo, cada uno aportando un granito de arena.

Seba García-loyola

Golfo de Vómitos


Fernanda Still Smiling 92dpi.jpg
“Keri, kill me. Kill me please!” -Fernanda, Golfo de Vomito. (c) Keri-Lee Pashuk 2016

La mañana del 10 de Febrero comenzó muy tranquila. Luego de visitar una hermosa playa (con frutillas silvestres incluidas), nos embarcamos rumbo al Golfo Tres Montes, al Norte del Golfo de Penas. La navegación empezó como de costumbre: muchas cosas que ordenar, revisar mapas y planificar el viaje. Todo transcurrió bien hasta el medio día. Lentamente, el barco comenzó a moverse con mayor intensidad. Casi al medio día, Fernanda se sintió mareada y bajó a la cama. Cada segundo me sentía mas mareada por lo que decidí bajar a la cama (la peor decisión ever!!). Todo sucedió muy rápido. Bajé y de repente mucha agua cayó desde el techo. La escotilla había quedado abierta!!! Si bien eran unos pocos milímetros, fue suficiente para que todo quedara empapado. La escena era super patética. Fernanda y yo estábamos completamente mojadas, pero éramos incapaces siquiera de movernos de la posición en la que estábamos en la cama (así que permanecimos mojadas el resto del día). Durante las siguientes 5 horas, el barco se movería sin parar. Había momentos que debíamos afirmarnos de la cama de arriba para no caer de la cama. De vez en cuando escuché a Fernanda vomitar (luego me enteré que fueron 4 veces). Recién a las 11 de la noche pude salir de la cama. Alex estaba acostada en el living quejándose de su espalda comiendo papas fritas junto a Franco. Fernanda despertó con cara de espanto. Mas tarde, los chicos nos mostraron los videos del exterior del barco durante la navegación en el Golfo. Ahí supe que pasamos por olas en promedio de 3 metros y que las mismas condiciones del clima se repetirán por varios días mas.. Hoy volveremos a salir a aguas abiertas. Supongo que nada puede ser peor que ayer pero con el Golfo nunca se sabe