29 Aug 2012

In September, our big neighbors visit us!

Our Big Neighbors
By Jorge Ventocilla
English Version by: Sara I. Melo

Here is a question the guides at Biomuseo could ask visitors: “What animal is our largest neighbor?”

- Answer: Humpback whales! !

On this Full Moon, we want to talk about Whales; the huge sea mammals, along with their calves, that are passing through (or almost “parading”) the Panamanian Pacific Coast, Panama Bay and areas close to the entrance of the Panama Canal.

Whales are fascinating. They are fun to talk and learn about from Betzi Pérez, someone who has studied them for years. Betzi saw a whale for the first time ten years ago while she was visiting the Azuero Peninsula. During the following years, this Panamanian scientist completed her college studies in Biology at the Universidad de Panamá and a master’s program at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The title of her graduate work was, “Birth interval of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) population around Baja California Sur Peninsula, Mexico”.

Betzi explains: “This time of the year, we are able to watch humpback whales, also known as yubarta or singing whales. They come mainly from the Antarctic and, in lesser numbers, from the Strait of Magellan. Many of them will remain in Panamanian waters while breeding; others will continue their journey up to the coasts of Costa Rica, the northern limit of their migration. In Panama, we can see whales coming from two different geographic origins: the northeastern Pacific (California, Oregon and Washington), these come to our coasts from December through March, and the whales coming from the southeastern Pacific, visiting us from June through November.”

Lucky for us Whales are not subject to any government immigration controls which would prevent them from returning to Panama after their migration. Whales, you are welcome to visit us again!

- Betzi, when did your first make whales a part of your life?

- “Back in 2002, we were on a field trip to Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana (nature reserve), in Los Santos. It was the first time I saw a whale. I was taking notes for my graduate work, which was about coral reefs, and I met Dr. Héctor Guzmán and Dr. Marco Díaz. They both had planned to spend the weekend watching the humpback whales near the island. They invited me to join them. It did not take long for us to come across a mother and her calf resting near the surface. Slowly, we sailed closer to them and turned the engine off. It was overwhelming to see this huge and harmless animal so close to me. Next thing I did after graduating was to look for opportunities for graduate studies, specifically in cetology (the study of whales and dolphins). That very moment, at the Azuero Peninsula, I decided I wanted to study whales and dolphins.”

- Which Whale species have been found in the Pacific Coast of Panama?

- “Current scientific knowledge shows that approximately 12 cetacean species can be seen in the Pacific Coast of Panama. These are divided into two suborders: the Mysticeti or baleen whales, represented by three species: the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the pygmy Bryde’s whale (B. edeni) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae); and the Odontoceti or toothed cetaceans, represented by eight dolphin species, from which the most common in the area are the Pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) and the common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), as well as the sperm whale or cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus)”.

- Which species can be found near the Biomuseo?

- “The most common species found in nearby waters are the spotted dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. Both of them can be found any time of the year. The humpback whale, a migratory species, can be found from June to September”.

- Do you think whales should be given a special place at the Biomuseo?

- “In my opinion, the Biomuseo should have a dedicated exhibition about the biology of whales and ecological information regarding them and other cetaceans that can be found on our coasts. Panama is one of the few countries where you have the opportunity to watch whales coming from both hemispheres. Another important thing to consider is that some of the visitors at the Biomuseo will also be interested in whale watching at the Bay or at the Pearl Islands (Archipiélago de Las Perlas); and the departure ports for these tours are also located at Calzada de Amador”.

- What should we know about Whales?

- “First of all, the general public should know that there is a law that protects marine mammals in Panama and also regulates tourism activities (guide to respectful whale watching). Other measures are as basic as reporting anything considered as questionable in whale watching tours, keeping the beaches clean (garbage left at the beach can cause serious injuries and even death to some animals) and supporting any conservancy actions and the non-lethal use of cetaceans. For example, people who eat canned tuna should know that the ‘Dolphin Safe’ label (a drawn dolphin) in some cans, means that the company has followed the guidelines for responsible fishing, using special fishing gear to avoid the accidental catching of dolphins”.

- What measures should the government take to preserve whales, a natural treasure?

- “There are several conservational measures that the Panamanian government can adopt for preserving whales. First of all, enforce Act 13 (May 5, 2005), which identifies the Marine Corridor of Panama (Corredor Marino de Panamá) for the protection and conservation of marine mammals, and Resolution ADM/ARAP No. 01, January 29, 2007 which rules whale watching activities in Panama. Monitoring and supervision are the safest way to enforce these regulations. Second, take a pro-conservation standpoint for the protection of the species at the International Whaling Commission. Third, develop environmental education programs for both kids and adults. I think the Biomuseo will be a valuable tool for implementing these programs. And last, keep promoting scientific research. This will allow us to know about the biology and the current status of the cetacean population.”