At the Achotines Laboratory in Panama, Yellowfin Tuna broodstock are replaced as older tuna parents become ill or pass away. On the morning of July 13th, I set off with two of my Aquaculture RSMAS colleagues (Jonathan Van Senten and Edissa Palacios) on a fishing trip for broodstock. It was a beautiful morning. The sea was calm, the clouds lay sleepily on the landscape, the sun still hidden behind the clouds was very slowly making its way into the sky above. We headed to the boat with our fishing guide from the Achotines Lab who went by the nickname “In.” The boat at first glance did not inspire much confidence. It was simply a hull with chipped faded colors of white, blue, and yellow. The main component being the livewell, situated towards the center, and with the dual function of serving as seats. The 60hp engine was propped in the back attached to a shaft to direct the boat.
We set off straight out of the bay about 20 minutes towards a large island of rocks where a lighthouse admirably stood. We had reached our fishing grounds. Rods in hand we cast our baitless hooks into the sea as our driver led the boat at a slow pace back and forth behind the island of rocks following diving seabirds and leaping fish. Within a few minutes I heard the ‘Zzziiip’ of a line behind me. Edissa, a fellow aquaculturist from Peru, had snagged something. “In” killed the motor as we began bringing up our lines while Edissa reeled and fought to get her catch in the boat. Lo and behold she had caught a feisty bonito. Bonito is a silvery fish, sort of resembling a small tuna, but is a much less tasty version of a tuna. We threw it in the cooler and continued on.
Two hours went by and it was still a string of bonitos that kept tugging on our lines. By this time the sun had finally made it’s appearance and had warmed the cool morning air. Bonito after bonito we began to tire. Then when we had almost given up hope there was another ‘Zzziiip’ from Edissa’s line and this time at the end of it was a flapping Yellowfin Tuna, broodstock quality. Yeah! This little guy went into the livewell and with our spirits revitalized we continued on. Shortly after we caught another one, but since it was badly hooked it was tossed in the cooler for tomorrow’s dinner, this was half a win.
Another hour and a half went by, the bonito had stopped biting, and with the sun glaring into our open hull we decided it was time to call it a day and head back. I was discouraged, even the bonito did not humor me with at least a few fights. I had caught a total of two bonitos and nothing that was worthy of a meal. I sat on the edge of the livewell moping over the lack of fish I had reeled in. My stomach protesting that it must be lunchtime. I was lost in thoughts when “In” shouted “ballena!” Far off to the left of us was a huge splash of water, it looked like a geyser erupted in the middle of the ocean, and right after another geyser. They were “ballena jorobadas,” humpback whales in english. I jumped to my feet, fumbling for my camera, with a burst of excitement replacing the hunger I had just felt. Never have I had the privilege of seeing any type of whale in the ocean. I had hoped to see dolphins at some point during the morning, but a whale, especially two humpback whales was more than a privilege, it was a blessing from the sea.
They were really far off from our boat. I figured it would not be practical to head so far in the opposite direction from our bay to get a closer look. I tried focusing as close as possible with my camera but all I could see were two grey humps far off in the distance, and then they were gone. This unexpected glimpse of humpback whales on the horizon had made my day, and as I took my seat back on the livewell “In” our boat captain looked to us and said, “I think they’re headed that way,” as he pointed somewhere in the distance, “Do you want to get closer?” I’m sure I smiled the dopiest of smiles, from ear to ear, as I nodded and sprang back up, camera in hand.
We all stood up on guard looking out into different areas of the sea. The pair of humpbacks would come up, twirl around a bit, and then again they were gone. It was a game of cat and mouse but we were getting closer. For about 35 minutes we were playing hide and seek with these stunning animals. They would come up, exhale huge spouts of water into the air and descend, other times they would come up and show off their flukes. ‘Snap’ ‘snap’ ‘snap,’ we took pictures of as many moments as we could. Then unexpectedly the most amazing event occurred. The whales came up again and this time they were surprisingly close, showing off even more of their splendid form to their admirers on the boat just a few meters away. I was standing, camera ready, when all of a sudden the water broke before us and catapulting into the air was one of the whales, his full body bare and glimmering against the light of day, his dorsal side facing us. I was able to make out all his features as time halted for that moment allowing us to take in every detail. The whale was majestically massive in size, shimmering dark grey, the ridges of bumps along the top of his head leading the way, his pectoral fins accented with white were sprucely set at his sides. The foaming water harmoniously enveloped his body as he made his elegant leap into the air. I believe that I must have inhaled so deeply that my breath was lost within me for quite some time before it found its way out. By the time I exhaled their humps were gleaming in the sun as they swam out into the open sea. Feeling a great amount of affirmation on life I said my goodbyes and gave a gracious thank you to the day. A pod of dolphins showed up leaping in and out of the air as to put a finishing touch on what had been one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever encountered.
A quick note on Ocean Conservation – The area of Panama I was in, where these whales were spotted, is almost pristine. There is a protected area nearby and little commercial traffic. Point being that the importance of keeping areas protected is evident in the fact that if there would be noise pollution and other unnecessary activity going on these whales would have never passed through this area. For us and for our future generations we individually need to take responsibility into our own hands so that these animals (as well as other animals) may continue to grace us with their presence for centuries to come.
Master of Professional Science: Aquaculture
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