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
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