The Giants of the Atacama Desert

Latest update August 12, 2019 Started on February 5, 2019

Every year blue whales and fin whales arrive to the driest desert of the world for feeding. I aim to study site fidelity, habitat use and anthropogenic threats, such as marine traffic, affecting the welfare of these giants.

February 5, 2019
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In The Field

Southern Right whale (Eubalaena australis) breeds in Atacama Desert Coast!!

Last week we had the incredible encounter with a mother southern right whale and her calf in the coast of Antofagasta City. Southern right whale population in Chile is endanger since the depletion of the SE Pacific (Chile and Peru) population due to last century hunting. Population size is estimated around 50 adult females, which is very low number compared to southern right whale population in SW Atlantic (Argentina). However, every year we can have 1 or 2 Southern right whales around Antofagasta, very close to shore, and this year is the first time we saw with a calf! It is amazing that this species prefers the waters of Atacama Desert to breed and nurse. The observation of this species by boat is forbidden in Chile due to its endanger conservation status, thus we could not approach them or use our Trident ROV to assess body condition. However, from the shore in the beach local people filmed and registered this amazing encounter.

We are very proud of our citizen science network!

Thank you to @Roberto Ramirez for the pictures!

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Last week a local fishermen had an excited encounter with orcas in the Atacama Desert!

The artisanal purse-seine fishing boats in northern chile focus in anchovy (engraulis ringens). This artisanal boats have around 12-18 m length and they spend weeks navigating the coast of Atacama desert looking for anchovies schools. Sea lions (Otaria falvescens) approach to the nets while they are fishing to eat also anchovies. It is known that sea lions can jump into and outside the net to eat some anchovies. Fishermen are very disappointing as sometimes they have their nets broken by sea lions. Currently, Chilean Government is trying to solve the problems between sea lions and fishermen. We are happy that the population of sea lions growth in the last decade due to the law that prohibits their capture. Is amazing to see colonies of thousands of sea lions resting in the Atacama Desert coast rocks. Orcas in Chile prey in sea lions. It seems that while sea lions are feeding the anchovy around the purse-seine nets orcas approach and chase sea lions. Last week a family of 5 orcas with one calf expend 2 hours chasing sea lions near the fishing boat. This fishermen registered the encounter and thanks to citizen science in Mejillones he shared his pictures with us. We are very lucky to have started citizen science program among local fishermen in northern Chile. Thank you to this data we can know the movement and behavior of top predators as orcas.

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Thank you Yumang! is amazing to see these animals in the driest desert scenery.

Very excited to try the Trident ROV in open sea!! Last week we had an incredible encounter with south American Sea Lions and we registered the amazing kelp forest in the Humboldt Current Ecosystem!!
Trident ROV is very useful in open sea with good visibility conditions and calm sea. We are very excited to see some whales in our next trip! Stay tuned!

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We are very happy!! Our Open ROV Trident just arrive!!
We also bought accessories 100 m tether and trident controller. All the equipment arrive in good conditions. Thank you so much to all the team of Open ROV, Open Explorer, all the people that follow our research and sofarocean members. We wait in a couple of days to do some proves in the field.

Follow our updates!

In The Field

Plastic seabird nests...

Our aim is to study cetaceans threats in Northern Chile. However, during our boat based surveys we find some incredibles things at sea, and other heartbreaking things as this seabird nests full of marine debris. Marine debris is a worldwide problem, millions of tons of plastic are being deposited in our beaches and oceans. It is known that they impact the marine fauna, being part of the trophic chains and causing death to whales, dolphins, marine turtles and seabirds by ingestion and entanglement. Since November 2018 we realized about the presence of numerous red-legged cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi) and Inca tern (Larosterna inca) making their nests in the iron structure of major ports with marine debris. We have seen them several times flying with plastic in their beak to build their nest. We have counted around 200 plastic nests in three major ports. They put the eggs and have their babies in the nest full of plastic, some of them die as consequence of the entanglement in fishing line that they use to build the nest. Among the marine debris we see in the nests are fishing robes, plastic bags and small pieces of maxi bags. Maxi bags are big bags that ports fill with sand to contain the waves and allow the construction of new ports. They fray into little threads of nylon which are later used by the birds. Currently we are trying to get permission by the National Service of Fisheries to characterize the marine debris in the seabird nests in the Bay. However is difficult to get permits when you aim to sample nests of seabirds catalog as protected by the Chilean Government. It is heartbreaking to see this animals nesting in our rubbish. We need to know the source of this marine debris and provide the tools to mitigate this problem. With the help of Trident ROV we aim to explore the underwater marine debris in the major port area to detect whether broken maxi bags are the cause of this problem. Stay tuned for more updates..

Nidos de plastico..

Nuestro objetivo es estudiar las amenazas para la conservación de cetáceos en la bahía de Mejillones. Sin embargo, durante nuestras salidas de navegación podemos observar cosas increíbles en el mar y otras no tan increíbles que rompen nuestro corazón como estas aves anidando en nidos de plástico. El problema del plástico es a nivel mundial, millones de toneladas de plástico son depositadas en nuestras playas y en el océano. Se sabe que el plástico impacta la fauna marina y ocasiona su muerte de delfines, ballenas, tortugas y aves marinas mediante la ingestión y el enmalle. Desde Noviembre de 2018 observamos que dos especies de aves, gaviotín monja y cormorán lile están fabricando sus nidos en la estructura de hierro de terminales portuarios de Mejillones con basura marina. En varias ocasiones los hemos observado volando con plástico en su pico para construir su nido. Hemos llegado a contabilizar hasta 200 nidos fabricados con plástico en tres puertos. Las aves ponen sus huevos y tienen a sus polluelos en nidos llenos de basura, muchos polluelos mueren enredados en las redes y naylon de pesca que utilizan para fabricar el nido. Entre los tipos de basura que utilizan para fabricar los nidos están las bolsas de plástico, los nailon de pesca y pequeños hilos de nailon procedentes del desgaste de maxi sacos. Los maxi sacos se utilizan en la construcción de los puertos, los llenan de arena y los utilizan para contener el oleaje y facilitar la construcción de muelles. Estos por la erosión del oleaje se degradan en pequeños hilos que después son utilizados por las aves. Actualmente estamos a la espera de obtener el permiso necesario para hacer un estudio de contabilizar el plástico de los nidos y determinar su procedencia para mitigar el problema. Sin embargo, al tratarse de especies protegidas por el Gobierno de Chile es difícil obtener permisos para muestra los nidos. Esperamos poder tener una solución pronto y proporcionar las herramientas necesarias para mitigar este problema.

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Posted by Cifamac Peninsula de Mejillones on Saturday, May 11, 2019


This humpback whale had a boat propeler scar before its dorsal fin. Collision with motor boats is an important threat for whale sin northern Chile. Mining industry increased in the área since the last decade. Numerous mayor sea ports were build to allow the shipping of minerals, oils, petrol, sulfuric acid or ammonia for the mineral obtention process. However, navigation routes of large cargo vessels in Chile are not regulated, large cargo vessels can enter to bays with no path, and usually navigation speed is higher than 14 knots in such areas. Whales can not avoid vessels when its speed is higher than 14 knots, and some of them collide with vessels. They can die in the moment of the collision or they can have scars or injuries in their body due to the encounter with the propeler. Our study aim to provide information regarding collision risk between whales and large cargo vessels in northern Chile and provide the authorities information regarding the areas where the distribution of whales concur with large cargo vessel navigation routes. We provide this information with the aim to create a navigation chanel path for large cargo vessels and industrial fishing boats in the area to avoid the distribution of whales. But convice the authorities regarding the necesity to create this navigation route is challenge issue. We need to proove that collisions are occuring in Northern Chile and to do that we need pictures like this one. This humpback whale showing scars of boat collision is the piece of evidence we need to convince the authorities that a navigation route and an area to avoid whales must be created in Mejillones Península. This humpback whale was recaptured in 2017 in Corcovado Gulf without the scars. Thus, the collision happened between 2017 and 2019 in some place of the southeastern Pacific. This humpback was lucky as he or she could survive to the collision. With the help of a Trident ROV we will check body condition of whales underwater, by analyzing ROV images we will discover any scar due to boat encounter. This will allow us to have more evidence of collision risk with whales in northern Chile.

In The Field

Humpback whale recapture!

Last month two humpback whales were feeding in Mejillones bay during several weeks. By taking pictuers of their flukes we can compare with other humpback whales seeing in the southeastern Pacific and know their site fidelity, residence patterns and also their migration routes. We compared with a humpback whale fluke catalogue from Corcovado Gulf in Southern Chile and we have a match! Our humpback whale seen in Mejillones March 2019 was seen in Corcovado Gulf in February 2017!! Amazing to know that these humpbacks remains in Chile for feeding. Photo Identification is a powerful technique to know migratory routes and fidelity patterns of big whales such as humpbacks. With the help of a ROV we could see also body condition and gender of the individuals. Body conditions is important since whales are subjected to several anthropogenic threats in the marine environment such as collision with large cargo vessels.

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We remember as yesterday the moment we saw a group of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Mejillones Peninsula. Two adult males, one calf, one juvenile and one female followed us in our boat. The juvenile was very curious and approach to the boat then I got to take this picture.
Killer whales in Chile are very unknown. Sightings are most common in the southern of Chile where killer whales approach to the coast to feed salmon. However, in the North we see them once a year, eating sea lions (Otaria flavescent) when they approach to the fishing boats to eat anchovy. In the direst desert of the world we see also de biggest of the dolphins, the killer whale.

This is super exciting! Thanks for sharing your encounter

Last week we had the amazing visit of two humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding in Mejillones Bay. This is first record of lunge feeding behavior of humpback whales at this latitude. They were during 7 days feeding anchovy (Engrauli ringens). Lots of sea lions, sea birds and dolphin joined the humpback whales in their feeding strategy. It is very important to protect anchovy in this region, as is key stone species of Humboldt Current System. We aim to stop fishing effort into the bay to guarantee the arrival of big whales to Mejillones every year for feeding.

La semana pasada tuvimos la increíble visita de dos ballenas jorobadas (Megaptera novaeangliae) alimentándose en la Bahía de Mejillones. Este es el primer registro del comportamiento "lunge feeding" de ballenas jorobadas en esta latitud. Estuvieron durante 7 días alimentándose de anchoveta (Engrauli ringens). Muchos lobos marinos, aves marinas y delfines se reunieron con las ballenas aprovechando esta estrategia de alimentación. Es muy importante proteger la anchoa en esta región, ya que es la especie clave del ecosistema Corriente de Humboldt. Nuestro objetivo es frenar el esfuerzo pesquero dentro de la bahía de Mejillones para garantizar la llegada de estas grandes ballenas para alimentarse todos los años en Mejillones.

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Desde el día domingo hasta hoy hemos visto 2 ballenas jorobada y muchos delfines alimentándose en la Bahía de Mejillones.

Posted by Juan Antonio Menares Henriquez on Friday, March 15, 2019

May I introduce you the Marine Research Team!

In the next few post I will introduce you to our research team. He is Juan Menares. The director of our NGO (CIFAMAC). He is a local fishermen from Mejillones converted to tourism. He spent his entire life working in the sea which allowed him to know well all marine species and its habits. He was the first person in the village converted to tourism and develop nautic sports such as aquatic ski or wakeboard in Chile!!! He realized how overfishing drived the depletion of many fishes in the área, thus he become tourist and naturalis pasionated. He has a big activist heart, publishing in social networks any spill in the bay or overfishing action. The captain of the boat, without his help and experience we will be unable to develop this Project.

In The Field

Today is a sad day for us.
Yesterday we saw in social networks a stranded dolphin in a beach close to our village. We contact the person and suddenly we were in our way the rescue of the dolphin. When we arrive to the beach we saw a dusky dolphin, with blood in his ear. The rest of the group of dolphins were in the swimming in the beach.

We moved the animal to the rescue center at Antofagasta University where we started the necrospy of the animal. It was a male, 1.76 m length and 58.6 kg. He had a very strong internal bleeding. We examined internal organs and saw the existence of a severe bleeding in his lungs. The stomach was empty just with few sand due to the stranding event. There were no internal parasites or evidence of illness. But the bleeding of his ear was very suspect.

Finally, we stated the cause of death was an underwater explosion that developed the animal fasting and disoriented for a few days until he died in the beach. Local people told us that fishermen were using fishing with explosives and dynamite for the "dorado". This practice is prohibited in Chile, but with no legal inspection, the still performing this horrible fishing.

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How sad to see. It's such a short-sighting way of fishing. I have seen how much damage it does to coral reefs in the Philippines and am so glad no-one does it here.

Yesterday was a very important day for us. As NGO we aim to promote the protection of marine fauna among local people. Science is not just being in the field taking samples or being in a laboratory. Science is to communicate with people the importance of research to protect species and the importance of people to know about the species and their environment. When we work in conservation we have to involve humans in our research, make people empower about the importance to protect the species and their environment. Thus we created the first Marine Fauna Identification Guide of Mejillones Bay. Pictures were taken for us and local people of Mejillones. We delivered the guides among local NGOs, ARMY, Museum, tourism association and town hall. Promoting the importance to know which species inhabits Mejillones Bay and the importance to protect their environment.

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Brilliant work guys! Communication about what lives in our local waters is so important. We are striving to do that on our Black Bream Project through various different media.

We do find however that we have to be careful about what we tell people. If we tell them exactly where certain species are there can be a risk of too much disturbance or being targeted by fishermen. Do you have similar problems there?

Hi Matt, not yet, as there is no wildlife tourism industry in the area. Just three local fishermen offering tours to see wildlife as penguins and sea lions. A couple of years ago none knows about the presence of blue whales in Mejillones Peninsula. I agree, we have to be careful with the information, and provide the correct one. But since we develop environmental education with fishermen and local communities I think we are in the correct way. Tourism and environmental education need to be at the same time.

There are not only giants in the coast of Atacama Desert. In our research surveys we find also one of the smallest cetacean species, Burmeister's porpoise. This porpoise is endemic of South America, from Perú to Uruguay. However, little is known about its abundance, distribution or site fidelity. In the 70's decade, fishermen started to catch Burmeister's porpoise for their consumption. Despite the banned of cetacean catches, nowadays by catch of Burmeister's porpoise still happening in the coast of Chile. When porpoises are in the nets, they die and local fishermen butchered their meat for human consumption or for use it as bait in the shark or crab fisheries.

Last week in our research survey, we found a bay full of Burmeister's porpoises in Mejillones. They were feeding in anchovy and we saw also a calf!! It is very excited to see them in their natural habitat. However, by catch is not the only threat they suffered, marine traffic, underwater noise and pollution may affect their welfare and survival. We aim to determinate the abundance, distribution and site fidelity of Burmeister's porpoise in Mejillones bay, thanks to the fund supported by the Porpoise Conservation Society, Canadá.

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I am very excited to share with all of you our publication regarding marine traffic and collision risk with fin whales and humpback whales in Mejillones Bay. Our study has been published in the Scientific Journal Marine Policy. From land based observation point I characterize the navigation path and speed of large cargo vessels, industrial fishing boats and artisanal fishing boats. In addition I determined density areas of different cetacean species found in the bay such as Burmeister's porpoise, dusky dolphin, long-beak common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso's dolphin, fin whales and humpback whales. I performed a spatial overlap analysis in ArcGis to detect those conflictive areas where cetaceans and navigation paths overlapped.

If you want to reed de article, please feel free to send me an email

Expedition Background

Since I started my PhD in 2014 I have described cetacean species inhabit the coastal upwelling Humboldt Current System in Atacama Desert Coast, Chile. Every year we observe fin whales and blue whales in feeding behavior in very shallow waters close to shore. I was surprised to see fin whales, the second biggest animal of the world, while having breakfast from a restaurant on the beach! I think Atacama Desert coast is one of the few places were fin whales are so close to shore. However, they are affected by numerous threats as marine traffic or pollution in the region. The increasing mining industry in Atacama Desert drives to the building of numerous maritime terminals in the coast shipping supplies as carbon, oil, lead, ammonia or sulfuric acid for the mining proceses. From my land-based research, I determined the presence of fin whales in the bay and the shipping lines path and large cargo vessels speed in Mejillones Bay. The collision risk is imminent, as highest density shipping lines and 95% kernel density distribution of fin whales overlap. However, to promote marine spatial planing and speed regulation I need more evidence of the collision risk. With this project I aim to explore these giants in the sea, detecting marks and propeller scars in the bodies of fin whales and blue whales by using ROV and photo-ID, in order to study their gender and site fidelity, behavior. If the same whales arrive every year for feeding to Mejillones Bay, and they show marks of propeller cuts, that means that they are susceptible to collide with large cargo vessels or fishing boats.

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Looks like a great project. We are also studying site-fidelity of rays on our study site in the UK. ONce the black bream finish nesting the rays return and we can identify individual fish and track them across the years. Please follow us to see more this year!
Wow your project is so vitally important. I really wish you all the greatest of luck in saving these magnificent whales.

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