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Pacific Whale Foundation was founded in Maui, Hawai‘i in 1980 to protect humpback whales from extinction. Since that time, we have expanded our efforts and also conduct research in Ecuador as well as research and whale watching in Australia. Although whale season won’t resume in Hawaiʻi until later in the year, it is just beginning in Ecuador!  

Humpback whale off the coast of Puerto Lopez. Research activities conducted under research permits from Machalilla National Park.

The first whales of the season have arrived in Machalilla National Park (in Puerto Lopez) where PWF conducts its research in Ecuador! PWF Ecuador Programs Director Dr. Cristina Paola Castro has been invited to speak at the Puerto Lopez Whale Festival as well as media outlets, including radio, television and social networks about PWF’s research projects in Ecuador and the history of how whale tourism has changed the reality of the Ecuadorian coastal towns. Cristina began her humpback whale field research in early June, which will continue for the next few months.

We have been gathering data for many research studies in Ecuador during whale season and throughout the year that could prove critical to protecting marine mammals in the area.   


Our research in Ecuador has revealed that fisheries interactions and bycatch are a significant threat to whales and dolphins in this region. We have documented numerous species of cetaceans becoming entangled and drowning in gill nets and even discovered marine mammals in homemade fishing equipment that were used as bait. For this study, we developed a community reporting network essential in documenting stranded and entangled marine mammals. Our researchers are partnering with experts around the world to address entanglement in Latin America and work with the on-water community to develop mitigation strategies and provide assessment and response training.

Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Puerto Lopez. Research activities conducted under research permits from Machalilla National Park.

Project Name: Status, Threats, and Conservation of Dolphins in the Eastern Pacific (2021) 

There is very little research about toothed whales and dolphins in the waters of coastal Ecuador and minimal research undertaken in Machalilla National Park. We have observed numerous coastal bottlenose dolphins with human-caused injuries, and our collaborator has documented a sharp decline in nearby dolphin populations. We aim to provide the first record of abundance and distribution of coastal bottlenose dolphins in Machalilla National Park so these populations can be managed and monitored for changes. We also plan to compare and contrast the status and health of dolphins from a protected area (Machalilla) to an unprotected area (the waters to the north and south where declines have been documented). Based on our findings, we will work with local agencies to provide continued monitoring and, if applicable, propose additional management strategies, such as expanding the protected area.

Bottlenose dolphin leaps above the coastal waters of Ecuador. Research activities conducted under research permits from Machalilla National Park.


Project Name: Assessing the Impacts of Human Activities on Whales and Dolphins (2017 – present) 

The goal of this study is to measure the short- and long-term impacts that human activities, such as climate change, vessel traffic, fisheries and marine tourism, can have on the target populations while using scientific data to advise on best practices and sustainable co-existence.

We will continue to monitor population trends of whales and dolphins to determine the impacts of changing environments and threats. This baseline data is essential for all Ecuador research projects. We will also continue monitoring compliance of boat operators with existing guidelines for marine mammal protection and our training of boat operators in Machalilla National Park with an emphasis on our Be Whale Aware & Dolphin Wise code of conduct to minimize the potential impact caused by whale watching.

Cristina conducts one of many of our boat operator training courses


Project Name: Monitoring Whales in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (2001 – present) 

This study is designed to maintain long-term continuous monitoring of humpback whales that use Ecuador as their breeding ground, while also documenting the presence and use of this area by other cetaceans, such as the Bryde’s whale, and to determine the prevalence of pollutants in marine mammal tissues and impacts to population health. The data collected allows us to provide science-based recommendations applicable to recovery and management strategies.


Project Name: Whales and Climate Change (2020 – present) 

This project aims to create a model of humpback whale migration across the entire Southern Hemisphere based on satellite tag data and validated by sightings data. We can then determine if humpback whales distribution, relative abundance, population parameters and migratory timing are linked to climatic variables and model future climate scenarios.

In the last century, humans have been accelerating the rate of climate change to dangerous and unsustainable levels. An increase in strength and frequency of weather events, both on land and in the ocean, have threatened species survival. In addition, the rise in sea surface temperatures is affecting many natural processes in the ocean. The humpback whale, due to its long migration patterns and reliance on cool, nutrient-rich water, is a good indicator of how climate change is affecting the ocean’s productivity and health.

PWF researchers are contributors to the world’s first international research project created to establish an understanding of how changing ocean conditions influence the recovery of whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere. Along with PWF, more than 25 researchers from five countries are gathering and contributing data to assist a team of researchers from six universities in building a model to predict whale distributions under future climate change scenarios, and help to investigate changes influencing population status and conservation of humpback whales.

You can help support marine mammal research in Ecuador, as well as Australia, Hawaiʻi and Chile by becoming a PWF Member, adopting a marine animal, donating and more.