On an expedition to the Chilean fjords, Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk found dozens of dead whales. Why were they here? They aimed to find out
It forms the crux point of the month-long passage from Puerto Natales in the south to Puerto Montt in the north. Fierce currents and precipitous waves discourage any loitering along this 140-mile passage.
Loitering with (scientific) intent was what we happened to be doing late that autumn, however. Using our recently acquired yacht, Saoirse, we had embarked a team of scientific divers headed by Dr Vreni Haussermann to explore the vast underwater treasure trove of benthic life hidden below the Patagonian waters.
These voyages of discovery are always exciting; we get to find new species and witness the colourful life that teems below the surface of the fjords, but our trip with Vreni and her divers that autumn took a tragic turn.
“There’s another one over there,” Keri announced over the radio. With dusk falling quickly, a dinghy full of scuba equipment and cold, hungry divers champing to get back to the warmth of the boat and discharge their day’s discoveries into the pilothouse, it was hard to get excited about anything else. Still, I looked into the gathering dark to see another indistinct pink blob lying on the beach about a mile to the south.
A quick glance through the binoculars confirmed it. Another whale carcass, lifeless on the shore of Puerto Slight. “That makes ten just today,” she said grimly, “and add that to the four we saw last month on the geology trip. There is something very strange going on here.”
By the time we turned Saoirse’s bow south to return across the Gulf we had counted nearly 30 recent whale carcasses scattered in Puerto Slight and Bahia Hoppner alone. Over the many years we have spent sailing these southern fjords we have all seen the odd dead whale lurking in the trees, gone to take a look as long as the nauseous smell would permit, but none of us had seen anything like this. It was about to get worse though, much worse.
Evidence from the air
Sometime after we had finished our expedition and completed the long voyage back to Puerto Williams, we received some stunning news from Vreni. She had reported what we had found to Sernapesca (the Chilean Fisheries Department), but faced a wall of indifference. Acting on a hunch, she had hired an aircraft to overfly the area and bought some high-resolution satellite photos.
The views from above revealed the massive extent of the carnage; the body count came to 337 whales scattered about the beaches, and this was only the confirmed ones. Who knew how many more were outside the purview of the photo surveillance or sunk to the bottom? It would be confirmed as the biggest whale stranding event in recorded history.
“We can’t ignore this, we must do something about it. It’s very important,” Keri stressed months later, while we were gloomily working our way through the mindboggling array of permissions needed for a proposed tourist trip to Antarctica. I agreed, but what could we do?
During our trip back south the story of the whale deaths had made international news, but Chile’s scientific world was in an uproar. Incredible as it may seem, the efforts of Vreni and her colleagues to study the phenomenon had set the factionalised science community to public warfare. So many insults were being hurled back and forth about the handling of the discovery that finally the public prosecutor of Aysen placed a ban on all further studies in the region for at least two years.
This was utterly absurd; the only way to find out how and why the whales had died would mean immediately returning to the Golfo de Penas with a specially equipped and permitted scientific team, but by now we were nearly 1,000 miles away, committed to be heading in the opposite direction. It all seemed impossible.
A few days later, our Antarctic trip had been cancelled, we had found a sponsor to cover the costs of the expedition and we were again northward bound. Expedition ‘Return to the Whales’ was born.
Assembling the crew
The expedition took shape very quickly in January. At the start we really had no idea of the type and quantity of data we would have to collect for the investigation, nor who could come to help us with it. For sure it was going to be a somewhat gruesome affair at times. Also we needed to do impeccable science.
“Have you ever cut up a whale before?” Keri asked Alexandra Luiso, our vet who had come across from Ushuaia to visit and was just then grooming and deworming our dog, Pichi, at the Micalvi Yacht Club.
“No,” she said, “but I have dissected a few birds, I’ve got time off and I am a veterinarian.” She quickly agreed to volunteer for the trip.
Katie McConnell, a Californian science diver, who had assisted Vreni with many of her benthic dive study projects, chimed in with an immediate: “I’m in!” She would act as crew and science adviser. One by one, other volunteers materialised: four graduate students of oceanography, palaeontology and marine biology rounded up by Vreni and her colleague Dr Carolina Gutstein of the University of Chile, who had between them constructed the scientific programme. We would pick them all up 650nm away in Puerto Eden in two weeks.
On 14 January we tightened down the last of the bolts on the brand new hydraulic windlass that had just arrived to replace the last one, which had ground to a halt on the previous trip. Loaded with 8,000lt of fuel, formalin, alcohol, plankton nets, a chainsaw, two dinghies, three outboard engines and some suits that looked as if we were headed into an Ebola zone, we were off.
North to Puerto Eden
Pichi leapt aboard for the long haul north to Puerto Eden to pick up the team. This is a trip that might normally take weeks, but Saoirse is no ordinary sailing vessel. She is constructed more like a small ship than a yacht and her drivetrain boasts a 250hp engine and a 95cm diameter variable-pitch propeller. Although she is a good sailer, the task of going to windward for hundreds of miles in the Beagle Channel and the Straits of Magellan is much eased by such machinery and we lost no time on the niceties.
Ten months had already elapsed since the event and, as time ticked on, it became less and less likely that we would find any useful clues to the whale deaths. We didn’t even know if we would find anything left there at all.
Or, an even more frightening prospect – since the El Niño event this year was forecast to be even stronger than 2015 and the theories proposed a strong linkage between water temperature and red tide – we might even witness
a repeat occurrence.
There were many extremely odd things about these strandings. For example, all the corpses noted to date had been sei whales. This is probably the least studied of all the great whales, but it is known that they are an oceanic species that does not often approach the coast. Furthermore, they prefer solitude and usually do not congregate together.
Why then were all the bodies found concentrated at the very extremities of the several shallow and narrow-waisted fjords that surround the Golfo de Penas? They had to have swum there to die, it was inconceivable that they could just float in there after a massive die-off out at sea. We had to try to visit every single one of the corpses in an effort to extract as much information as we could – by dinghy and on foot.
Determining the cause of death
This time I got the best job, helming Saoirse in back-up for the shore team and looking after the relatively clean oceanography work. Since Keri has made it a part of an artwork she is developing to take a photograph of every single whale, she was perforce obliged to be the dinghy driver, chaperoning the palaeontologists, who busily measured and sampled skin and bone from each carcass, collected baleen samples and a raft of other scientific projects which piggy-backed in on this one.
All this time we were really searching for the ‘smoking gun’, something that would point incontrovertibly to the cause of death. In the science world, that is called a necropsy; to dissect the corpse of a freshly dead whale. In the end, we would go one better.
On 22 February, during a perusal of the GRIB files Keri snapped the computer shut and declared: “That’s it! Only two more days and we have to leave!” A series of weather systems threatened to shut us in on the north side of the Gulf and we had run out of time. All appeared to be set for an anticlimax, but nature had a gift in store.
That night, a juvenile whale, newly dead, floated gently in on the tide near where Saoirse was moored in Caleta Buena. We immediately set up our tools on the beach and set to the task, sensing that this would be our final opportunity. As I was running point duty aboard Saoirse for the rest of the team I glanced out into the main sound of Puerto Slight to see a massive disturbance in the water.
As the maelstrom came rapidly closer I could see two sei whales with a pod of orcas, clearly intent on murder, in hot pursuit. In a vain effort to evade the attacks of the orca, the doomed seis were frantically dashing from beach to beach, only to be headed off by the superbly choreographed teamwork of the killers. These maintained their lethal body blows and slapped at the water with their powerful tails until they disappeared as suddenly as they had come. Next morning, two more sei whale corpses sat high and dry on the beach, teeth marks clearly evident – if not the smoking gun, then clearly one of them.
We are now safely back with Saoirse in Puerto Eden, which has started to feel a bit like home. After a further month spent in the Golfo de Penas in May, rounding out the studies in what we have come to call the whale cemetery, we have started in on the study of new life in the Gulf. These concentrate more happily on the regeneration of life after the die-off.
Though the phenomenon of wildlife die-offs remains desperate on the more northerly coasts of Chile, we did not encounter any further whale deaths that month. We were even rewarded with a rare hydrophone recording of the sounds that the elusive and secretive sei whale makes.
While the full scientific construct of the events surrounding the mortality is still being worked on (and may never be fully understood), stories now flow in from locals about their own experiences with orca attacks and a hitherto hidden world begins to appear. What matters is not the answer itself, it is that we seek it.
Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk
Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk are a husband and wife team who met in the Antarctic in 1986 while crewing on different boats. They have a special interest in high latitude sailing, first aboard Northanger, a 54ft lift-keel steel ketch, and latterly with Saoirse.
Greg writes: I have spent a large part of my sailing life on expeditions, mostly for the privilege of chancing across an unclimbed mountain summit and the truth of this is quite simple: you either climbed the mountain, or you did not, no proof needed but your own word. It is an elegant, but rather useless pursuit based on some anachronistic need to prove how tough we are.
Our new interest in expedition sailing, on the other hand, stems from the hope that we could bend our sailing skills and new boat toward science, especially that which serves to protect our natural heritage. There have been many such expeditions in the recent past, mostly aimed at the namby-pamby concept of ‘raising awareness’ of a problem in the ecosphere.
In my view, the time for that is long past; there is plenty of information out there about the dire state of the oceans; if a person is not aware by now they probably never will be. It is time to act. But I was singularly unprepared for the web of bureaucratic obfuscation that often seems to surround the pursuit of a scientific result. Perhaps being armed with that naiveté is the reason why we could take this job on, and succeed.
Saoirse is a 59ft sloop, a one-off built to Rolf Modig’s last Langedrag design in 1997 by Alve Henricson in Sweden. She was originally named Searcher and according to the vision of her builder she made several scientific ventures to remote places such as the Pitcairn Islands, Seychelles, South Georgia and even made a transit of the North East Passage.
We bought her in August 2013 in Nuuk, Greenland and re-christened her Saoirse, which is nearly a homophone of the original Searcher and also the name of Conor O’Brien’s boat that made the first small yacht circumnavigation of the world by way of the three great Capes in 1925. The name means ‘freedom’ in Irish.
Our first voyage was a 4,500-mile expedition into the farthest reaches of Hudson Bay, supporting an epic photographic work called the ‘Atlas of Emptiness’ by the photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper.
We had begun dabbling in scientific work aboard our first vessel, Northanger, in 2009 in Patagonia, mostly with geologists studying plate tectonics. Science that involves undersea exploration though is somewhat more demanding on equipment and space, so we began to look for a larger and more powerful sailing boat.
Since we bought Saoirse we are gradually adapting her to fit as many disciplines as possible. This is made possible partly by the recent surge in technology, which has miniaturised and lightened equipment needed for field work – drones for example.
The first necessity is adaptable and sheltered deck space. Obviously sailboats do not lend themselves happily to this, but the second major necessity, autonomy, dictates that the sailing rig stays. The third necessity is a robust power system capable of handling the demands of the various winches, compressors and sensors needed. Finally, comfort and security is of paramount importance.
It is vital that the boat can support two capable dinghies simultaneously in case of an emergency with the primary tender and be able to bludgeon its way off a lee shore in a rescue situation.
These are often conflicting demands, but as Saoirse evolves we are constantly looking to retain her general-purpose capability while being able to adapt quickly to new technology.
With thanks to:
The further work of this expedition can be followed at the blogsite expedition2016.wordpress.com This expedition was made possible with the support of the Blue Marine Foundation. Further details of this and other projects can be seen at www.bluemarine foundation.com