October 18, 2022
Image: Southern right whale mother and calf (c) Cesar Gribaudo
SOUTHERN PATAGONIA, ARGENTINA (OCTOBER 18th, 2022) –
Looming over the waters of the South San Jorge Gulf Hope Spot in southern Patagonia, Argentina are rolling green hills and a winding road that traces the coastal edges of Santa Cruz province. The only city along the Gulf is Caleta Olivia, home to 50,000 people who, known to them or not, share a blue backyard with creatures like whales, dolphins and other species. César Gribaudo, CEO of Patagonia Red Global, likes to call his home “Ciudad de las Ballenas” – “City of the Whales”. He began conducting research on the marine life in the area in 1986 and he and his partners’ work remains some of the very little scientific research done on the whales and other marine life in the Gulf. Gribaudo and Angeles Rodriguez, International Communication Chief and Laboratory and Field Director of Patagonia Red Global are hoping to invigorate public support for expanding formal marine protection with ecotourism and scientific research hand-in-hand.
International marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue recognizes South San Jorge Gulf as a Hope Spot in support of Patagonia Red Global’s ongoing research, activism, outreach and efforts to establish formal protection in the South San Jorge Gulf. Such protection can create an integrated marine protected area that would secure a safe migratory corridor for species between existing marine protected areas (MPAs).
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue says, “I want to really salute the Champions for this amazing region – Angeles Rodriguez and Cesar Augusto Grubaldo, who are really working to do what is possible to shine a light on this amazing place.” She continues, “By declaring this region a Hope Spot, there’s a good possibility that more protection can be given to this remarkable kind of coastal system.”
Over the years, Patagonia Red Global and their partners have observed species in the Gulf including the Southern Right whale (Eubalaena australis) (Belgrano, et al. 2004; 2006; 2011; Paez et al., 2017) Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) sightings (Belgrano, et al., 2007c; Iñíguez, et al., 2010), Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) (Gribaudo & Gribaudo 2015; 2017b), and many others.
Gribaudo and Rodriguez plan to bring these animals closer to the public’s heart by starting the first boat to take the public on whale-watching trips in the Gulf and supporting expanded ecotourism and scientific research in the area. “We want to be able to do photo identification and take non-invasive living animal samples” explains Rodriguez. They currently need more resources for the boat itself and the materials and infrastructure required for continuing the program. She describes the long-term benefits: “If sustainable tourism were available, it would be possible for more people to know this secret Atlantic gem in a sustainable and respectful way.”
Much of the area and the species themselves are understudied, and more resources will be needed to conduct more research. Currently, they maintain daily coast sightings to spot stranded animals in which they proceed with measures, necropsies and sampling, and translate to Buenos Aires city to analyze. Gribaudo and Rodriguez and their team have been working with stranded animals, recovering each one they had the resources to address. “Most data in the area is from sightings on the coast. [The data we can collect includes] what species have appeared where, their movement, how long they were there and even what they were doing.”
In 2018, they started sampling DNA on a deceased stranded humpback whale and found that he was born in Brazil, but was not connected to the groups in Antarctica. Gribaudo describes how they are able to understand where an animal was born without tracking methods. “We analyzed mitochondrial DNA, then compared that DNA sequence with other mitochondrial haplotypes stored. We found a coincidence with described mitochondrial haplotypes from Brazil” he says.
Gribaudo’s team, in collaboration with Projeto Baleia Jubarte, observed 60 Sei whales in the Gulf. Jose Truda Palazzo, Institutional Development Officer of the Brazilian Humpback Whale Institute, comments on their arrival, “We were not prepared for what we saw, a coastal feeding population of Sei whales, an endangered species according to IUCN about which is very little scientific information.”
30 of the animals were able to be photographed and then uploaded to Happywhale where no matches were found – indicating that those animals hadn’t belonged to a previously known population. Happywhale is a citizen science platform that allows people from all over the world to upload photographs of whales and other marine mammals. “These photos are useful to identify individuals and if there are coincidences with animals that have been already uploaded we can understand the movements those animals make” Gribaudo explains.
If formally recognized, this MPA would protect the areas from South to North by Antarctica, the Burdwood Bank, the Patagonian Shelf Hope Spot, the San Jorge Gulf Hope Spot, the Peninsula Valdes, the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary of Uruguay Hope Spot, Ilhabela State Park, and Serra do Mar State Park at São Sebastião Brasil. “In the MPAs themselves, many species have some level of protection” explains Rodriguez. “For example, right whales are considered Natural Monuments, but we hope that all whales can receive that level of protection.”
With the support of the municipality, the city council, the Enforcement Authority, Fauna and Protected Natural Area of the Province of Santa Cruz, the Federation of Neighbors Unions of Caleta Olivia, Projeto Baleia à Vista and Projeto Baleia Jubarte and the Foundations including Hábitat y Desarrollo, Patagonia Natural and CADACE, the Champions are hopeful for a bright path forward for the Gulf.
“Along the beach today remains whaling factory infrastructure that tells the story of the past,” Gribaudo says. “However, the sea tells the story of the present; reflecting the marine life and its continuous growth through it all.”
About Patagonia Red Global
Patagonia Red Global is a conservation nonprofit organization born 40 years ago with the aim of researching, protecting, preserving, and project to the community the cultural and natural heritage Southern San Jorge Gulf. Throughout these years, working together with the community, a comprehensive survey of the entire area, archaeological, paleontological and natural sites was carried out, declaring 11 protected natural areas. Today we continue researching and working together with public and private entities, and the community, for the comprehensive management of these areas and the development of the community, with a vision of respect for nature and use through sustainable tourism.