Brazil, Humpbacks…

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Emma Brown, WCA Intern

26/08/2016: Brazil, Humpbacks and Learning Portuguese!


Leaving the airport, I watched the twinkling lights of Salvador from the taxi window. After the turbulent and delayed long-haul flight, half an hour on the dark and deserted motorway flew by. We pulled up in the coastal town of Praia do Forte, where I would be spending the second part of my internship, and stepped out onto the moonlit cobble stones. Whatever unease I had felt at finding myself alone in a new country left me immediately as I got my first taste of Brazilian hospitality. A crowd of interns from The Humpback Whale Institute, grinning enthusiastically, hugged me one by one and ushered me and my luggage up the stairs of their home. After a barrage of introductions, excited questions and licks from the friendly dog Bicuda (named after the Portuguese term for ‘beaked whale’), I collapsed onto the bottom bunk bed; I had arrived in Brazil!

The scorching sun rose the following morning to reveal the lush vegetation of the town and a beach straight out of an office worker’s day dream. After a delicious breakfast of fried bananas and tapioca pancakes, I was shown round the impressive premises of The Humpback Whale Institute. Complete with a whale skeleton, lecture theatre, research centre, living ‘green roofs’ compost heap, natural water-filter system and an ‘Eco-Arts’ building constructed with recycled materials; the institute is famous throughout Praia do Forte. The centre provides guided tours, videos and a lecture on the whales’ biology and ecology for all tourists before they go out on the sea with the local whale watch operators. Pioneering responsible whale watching techniques here since the 1990’s, the institute sends interns out with these tour boats to monitor the operators and collect data in the form of photo identification. A photograph of the monochrome pattern on the bottom of a whales tail identifies them as individuals; as distinctive as a fingerprint at a crime scene. Keeping a record of ‘who’ turns up where can tell the researchers how far the whales travel, how many there are and how long they live for.

Praia do Forte also boasts the towering metropolis called ‘Tamar’, a sea turtle rehabilitation programme with a gourmet restaurant, cocktail bar and live music stage to boot. Every café and shop in town has a turtle or whale tail in the décor, and graffiti artists have plastered a neon humpback whale across the wall of an alleyway just off the main street. It is clear at a glance that ecotourism plays a big part in the local economy and the creatures themselves are influencing the culture as their populations swell.

The humpbacks here, reduced to only 4% of their original number by commercial whaling activities a hundred years ago, have begun to bounce back to reoccupy their former breeding and birthing grounds. As they do not feed in Praia do Forte, finding whales at sea is more of a challenge than elsewhere. Normally, if you can spot a flock of circling and diving sea birds, this is a tell tale sign of a feast of fish in the area with whales, dolphins and other predators never far behind. But here, we strained our eyes against the blinding sun for a brief glimpse of a blow or “borrifo” on the horizon of the perpetually wavy ocean. Myself and the tourists were rewarded for our patience with a sighting of a mother and calf being escorted by another adult with a deep scar just behind the dorsal fin. Joyfully, the baby whale threw itself out of the water and crashed back into the sea; a beautiful breach that left us all smiling.

Back on dry land, I have been determined to tighten my feeble grasp of the Portuguese language. The only advice I had absorbed from my copy of ‘The Rough Guide to Brazil’ was that the name of the country should be said in a cockney accent so it sounds more like “Brazeew”. This, bizarrely, turns out to be a good tip to sound like a local! Sharing a house with seven Brazilians has been a fast track lesson in Portuguese – I have quickly learnt all of the most essential vocabulary such as “moth”, “aubergine” and “everything is great”. As I met more of the tour operators and professionals from the institute, I asked their opinion on “o problema de redes fantasma” or the problem of ghost nets, and am slowly building a picture from anecdotal evidence and advice on who to contact next. The general air of enthusiasm and recognition of the issue bodes well for what I could achieve for the NetEffect Campaign over the coming months. The Humpback Whale Institute itself is an excellent example of how to breach the gap (pun absolutely intended!) between research, education and tourism and I’m very excited to be part of the team making the magic happen.


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