Humpbacks in Northern Chile

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WCA’s Partner CIFAMAC (Marine Fauna Research Center and Cetacean Sightings) is a local Non-Profit Organisation located in Mejilones, a small village in the coastal Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Founded by local fishermen and scientists, their aim is to protect the marine environment. Despite being one of the driest deserts in the world, the coast off the Atacama Desert has one of the most productive marine ecosystems due to the presence of the Humboldt Current and upwellings. This provides food to numerous marine mammals includes blue, humpback and fin whales, bottlenose, common, Risso’s and dusky dolphin, plus Burmeister’s porpoise.

CIFAMACs main objectives are to foster responsible wildlife-watching, support marine research and provide environmental education to local children, fishermen and tourism operators.

In terms of charismatic humpback whales, in Chile there are two main feeding areas in the south of the country: Magallanes and Corcovado Gulf (Latitude up to 45ºS). Here they feed on two species of krill, Munidae sp. and Euphasidae sp. during the austral summer (January-February-March). They then start their migration to the low latitudes of the Ecuatorian Current, such as northern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. Here they spend the austral winter (July-October) for breeding and nursing their calves.

Therefore, Mejillones Bay (Latitude 23ºS) in northern Chile, where CIFAMAC are based, is a migratory corridor with a peak in humpback whales sightings in February-March, although some juvenile whales are present year round and it seems some individuals do not migrate. Usually the team sees humpbacks travelling north or south.

However, between March 10th to April 3rd 2019 the team from CIFMAC observed something different. During this period the team came across a couple of humpback whales lunge feeding on anchovy (Engarulis ringens). This is where a whale lunges through the water with its mouth open and specially adapted throat grooves expanded to engulf huge mouthfuls of water and prey, which is then filtered through its baleen.

This is the first record of humpback whales lunge feeding in this area and at this latitude.

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