Summary of my current research activities on whales and their habitats...

Humpbacks on the Sea of Cortez

RICHARD ROSIER/The Daily Journal
Friday, July 15, 2005

Published originally in the Ukiah Daily Journal; reprinted with permission.

Local educator and researcher Urmas Kaldveer, Ph.D., recently returned from a whale researching expedition on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

Readers may remember Kaldveer for his 32 years of experience teaching at Mendocino College or for his previous research projects on coral reefs.

Kaldveer's interest in whales began with an experience in 1971, he said, when he was working as the collector for the University of California Bodega Marine Lab.

Kaldveer took out a 36-foot trawler on his own, which, he said, "is never a good idea, but sometimes you just have to do it." While out on the trawler he was caught in the fog off of Bodega Head, which is a relatively dangerous place to get in the fog because of the Pacific swell and other dangers. Kaldveer said he was lost in the fog and feeling very much alone, when a humpback whale appeared in the fog and breached right in front of his boat and then stayed with him, circling his boat, for an hour or so.

"I had this feeling that somehow the whale knew, understood, felt, was sensitive to the fear that was running through me," said Kaldveer. "I was scared, about as scared as I've ever been. The fog was very thick."

The whale remained with Kaldveer until the fog broke, he said, and then departed, leaving him right in front of the harbor. Kaldveer said that he had a strange feeling that maybe the whale had guided him there, and kept him off the rocks.

From that point on Kaldveer began feeling a certain affinity with whales. In 1992 he was asked to become the executive director of a marine research organization call Pelagikos, and their main interest was whales. Kaldveer went on various expeditions dealing with whales on and off for the next 10 years.

"I had some incredible experiences," said Kaldveer. "We were primarily interested in Blue Whales, which are the largest of the marine mammals and the largest of the whales, and our work was primarily in the area of photo identification."

According to Kaldveer, photo identification is the foundation of whale study. Researchers can do all kinds of other studies on whales in terms of surface behavior, anatomy or genetics, he said, but without being able to identify an individual whale, there is no they can determine migration patterns, pod relationships, or numbers.

After 98, Kaldveer went on a major four-month expedition in Hawaii tracking humpbacks as part of a global experiment to determine if ocean temperatures were increasing as a result of global warming. Once he was finished with this project, he essentially left the whale arena and focused on other aspects of his research.

Kaldveer's interest in whales was sparked once again when he purchased property in Mexico on the East Cape, in the village of El Cardonal. He contacted Richard Sears of Canada, who is one of the foremost experts on blue whales in the Sea of Cortez, who asked Kaldveer if he would like to help him with a photo identification project near the village. Kaldveer quickly agreed.

With the help of two dedicated volunteers from Lakeport Lenee Goselin and Kristin Paiva and his "eagle-eyed" panga pilot, Vincente Lucero, Kaldveer went looking for blue whales... and found none.

What Kaldveer found instead was a large population of humpbacks, much larger than usual for the area, according to the locals. And so, seeing an unexpected opportunity, the team decided to go ahead with the photo identification project with humpback whales rather than blue whales.

"It's a different picture though," said Kaldveer. "It's a picture of the underneath of the flukes. They range everywhere from midnight black to total white, and literally everything in between. It's clearly a genetic phenomenon, so it's like a fingerprint."

The photos shown are really good photo ids, according to Kaldveer. A researcher can identify these whales anywhere in the world if they come up behind them and see these particular patterns of black and white, he said.

During their time on the water the group took about 300 photos, but with only a second-and-a-half opportunity to capture the fluke, the were only able to get 15 to 20 good photo ids.

Both of his volunteers and his pilot became extremely proficient at spotting whales, said Kaldveer, and he came to appreciate the fresh perspective that the young college students brought to the project.

"Often after we had a day at sea we would sit together at dinner and I would ask them, What did you think was going on?'" said Kaldveer. "And they were so insightful, and so enthusiastic. Both have volunteered to go with me next year, which is delightful for me because they were so good at what they did."

While the team was watching the whales, they discovered that there were a large number of females with calves either giving birth or weaning. It appeared that they were coming to the area to calve because of the optimal conditions for giving birth and maintaining their young, he said.

Later, as they continued to work they witnessed males breaching, which, according to Kaldveer, is thought to be a mating display. All of these clues led him to believe that the area was an important, if not major, breeding and calving ground for the humpbacks.

"This area, the East Cape, is one of the hottest real estate areas in the world. The result is that a lot of people are coming into the area and they are bringing their small boats. So the area that these whales are doing their breeding and calving, during the very season where they're doing this February and March is one of the favorite season for sports fisherman to come down, not so much because there's lots of fish but because the weather is better than it is anywhere else," said Kaldveer.

"My concern is that the increasing small boat traffic is going to prevent the whales from being able to carry out their calving and breeding successfully."

With this information, Kaldveer's research took on far more importance. Following Sear's advice, he emailed Jorge Urban, the head of the Marine Mammal Department at the University of La Paz and Mexico's "whale man," and gained his support in the preservation of the area.

"If nothing else," said Kaldveer, "by declaring it a whale sensitive area, I could get literature printed that could be handed out to all local fishermen and to sports fishermen that during February and March to be extra sensitive to whale activity."

Kaldveer will be holding a fundraiser in mid to late September in order to raise money for his next expedition to the Sea of Cortez. Kaldveer would like to assure those following his reef work that the project is still ongoing, and interested parties may contact him if they would like to find out more. For more information on this or his coral reef projects, email him at


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