Josefina the whale

We are pleased to introduce you to Josefina – a humpback whale that has special significance to our Ecuador research team.

Ecuador is South American country that located on the Pacific Ocean between Columbia and Peru. Humpback whales are found along the coast of Ecuador during the months of June through September – the time of year that is winter in the southern hemisphere. The whales travel to this region to mate and give birth in these tropical, warm ocean waters. Mother whales also nurse and care for their calves here.

As winter gives way to summer in the southern hemisphere, the whales migrate southward to cooler waters, ending up closer to Antarctica during the months of October through May. The cooler waters are home to vast schools of krill and small fish, which the humpback whales feed upon, consuming up to a ton of fish per day.

Our researchers’ knowledge of Josefina began in 2002, when this whale was sighted on July 19, actively milling around near Machalilla National Park (Parque Nacional Machalilla). Located just offshore from the small Ecuadoran town of Puerto Lopez, Machalilla National Park occupies 40,000 acres of land and 20,000 hectares of ocean, including the islands of La Plata and Salango, which are famous for their flowers, birds and other wildlife. Many people call this park “the poor man’s Galapagos” for its great diversity of wildlife and the fact that it is very affordable to visit. Our researchers were able to photograph Josefina’s distinctive whale flukes when they sighted her within the park. This photograph provided the key to being able to identify Josefina again in the future.

2004 proved to be an exciting year for our researchers. On three different occasions, they photographed a whale that turned out to be Josefina! The sightings took place on August 4, August 30 and August 31 and spanned 27 days. You can view the location of those sightings on the enclosed map. One of those sightings took place near a town known as Salinas.

For our researchers, it was very exciting to know that a single whale had spent 27 days in this region. While whales can be seen off the coast of Ecuador during June through September, it is very possible that the whales flow in and out of the area during this four-month period. Learning that Josefina was in the area for 27 days helped to show that at least some of the whales stay put – at least for a month.

Josefina was also photographed on August 6, 2005, again actively milling about in Machalilla National Park.

These multiple sightings illustrate the value of photo-identification as a tool for learning about whales. Nature has given each humpback whale a unique combination of pigmentation patterns and markings on the underside of its tail (known as its “flukes”). When a whale begins to dive underwater, it may lift up its tail, in the same way a swimmer lifts up her feet to gain momentum during a surface dive. If a researcher acts quickly as the whale begins to dive, they can photograph the whale’s flukes, obtaining a unique “fluke i.d photo” of the whale. The researchers also document the location, whale’s behavior and pod composition at the time the whale was photographed.

Back in the research lab, the researchers compare newly aquired fluke i.d photos with past photos on file. They examine the photos to find matches – different dates when the same whale was photographed. It’s tedious work, but it is rewarding when a match is found – it means that we’ve seen the same whale on more than one ocassion.

The fact that our researchers sighted Josefina at five different times is very exciting indeed!

In all, Pacific Whale Foundation’s researchers have individually identified more than 1,500 humpback whales off the coast of Ecuador. Each individual whale’s I.D. photo is put into a catalog of known animals, and our catalogs are shared with researchers in other parts of South America, so we can learn if these animals are sighted in other locations as well.

Our researchers do not know if Josefina is a male or female. The easiest way to identify a female is to see the whale alone in the presence of a young calf. (Humpback whales don’t “babysit” for eachother; the mom is constantly with her young calf. If a whale is alone with a calf, it is safe to presume it is female and is the mom.) If a whale is singing, we can assume it is a male, because only males are observed singing in the mating and breeding grounds. Occasionally a whale will roll over on its back, allowing researchers to see features that indicate the gender. Unfortunately, Josefina has not given us any clues to determine its gender.

Whales have become extremely important to the people of Puerto Lopez, the town where Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project is based. Until recently, Puerto Lopez was just a sleepy little fishing village. The presence of the whales has helped to attract visitors to Puerto Lopez and as a result, whales have changed the life and the economy of the Ecuadorian coast.

Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project began in 2001, to enhance and support earlier research efforts of local whale researcher Cristina Castro. To date, the project has photo-identified more than 1,500 humpback whales.

In 2007, Cristina helped to convince Ecuador’s government to enact a ban on whaling in its nearshore seas. That year, she also helped to bring together all of the nations of Central and South America to sign a pledge against commercial whaling, which was then presented to the International Whaling Commission.

Pacific Whale Foundation's whale research in Ecuador also earned Cristina Castro a seat on the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group that helps to advise the political arm of the IWC.

Cristina has also brought together researchers working off the west coast of Latin and Central America and now curates a photo i.d. catalog (funded by Pacific Whale Foundation) with fluke i.d. photos of whales sighted off the coasts of Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan (a new feeding area discovered in Chile) and the Antarctic Peninsula. A number of groundbreaking new publications have come from this collaboration and have yielded new insight about the whales’ population size, migratory pathways and reproductive dynamics. Cristina was also instrumental in helping form the Latin American Humpback Whale Research Group in 2007, a cooperative of researchers from all countries in Latin America.

By adopting Josefina, you have helped to support the work of Cristina Castro and her research team. We look forward to photoidentifying more whales in the future, and most especially, to have new resights of Josefina. As the adoptive parent of Josefina, you will be among the first to know when we encounter this fascinating whale again.

Josefina sighting map