Written by Alaina Lancaster
Katherina Audley discovered the power of ecotourism on her wedding day. In 2011, she invited 80 of her friends and family members to Barra de Potosí in Mexico’s Guerrero state. Audley first traveled to the 600-person fishing village after taking a sabbatical from her research and evaluation work at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum. She returned to Barra de Potosí for the rich whale and fish sightings nearly every winter for about a decade and wanted to share the Southwest Pacific town with her loved ones. While visiting, she noticed the locals had fallen on harder times after years of overfishing. “It has always been simple life there, but they were struggling to buy backpacks for their kids and couldn’t afford to fix leaky roofs,” she said. “Bringing 80 people who drank beer and ate guacamole was enough to pay off those debts.”
Hoping to recreate this effect, Audley, also a writer and photographer, put together a travel feature in The Oregonian, describing Barra de Potosí as a nature-lover’s wonderland. About 100 tourists flocked to the village. “I thought, ‘This feels really good; I’d like to keep doing something like this.’” In 2014, she embarked on the Whales of Guerrero Research Project and moved to the coastal community that winter.
With the organization, Audley wanted to create a five-year conservation model that combined ecotourism, research and education. Since her mid-twenties, she had been traveling around the world to see whales and learned how wildlife enthusiasts could help lift local economies. Although Barra de Potosí fishermen knew that whales visited the area, she quickly learned that the whale population had never been studied and the village didn’t seem to have a connection to the animals.
For the first year, the goal of the project was to understand the whales’ migration patterns and share findings with the public. She appointed a nature enthusiast living in town to be her main captain and reached out to scientists who she had met over the years. Some offered advice and resources, others came to the village to participate in the research.
Every day, her team would take a boat on the water and track whale sightings, plotting them on a map in the middle of the village. She began to see people congregating around the map. “I would tell them, ‘I’m doing it for you. I really love this place, and the thing I love the most is the people. I want to help you.’” She would go on explain that naturalists all over the world pay to see whales in the wild, and that many captains have developed special, respectful relationships that encourage whales to relax around the boats.
Although the people of Barra de Potosí were somewhat familiar with Audley from her visits, taking the time to educate them about the local cetaceans helped her win their support. “They knew there were whales, but they didn’t know what species, that whales sing, that they have a family structure,” she said. “It made people feel really connected to them.” That first year of the program spent getting the word out was a lonely but an exciting time for Audley.
During her second year of the project, Audley received her first grant from the American Cetacean Society San Francisco Bay. She used the grant to spark more community involvement. “I thought I would be working with old men fishermen,” she said. “They told me if I want to do anything, I have to get their wives’ approval.” Many of the women in the village were artists, and Audley recommended they create art inspired by the town’s natural beauty to sell at an arts fair. Her crew also began hosting children’s workshops about whales and science walks, where kids are taught to look at the world with scientist eyes. “A little goes a really, really long way in Mexico,” she said. “A $1,000 grant is enough to fund four days of research on the boat. Or it can pay for three months of living with a family, paying for food and basic living expenses. [funding] one person to teach kids, do training programs and study whales.” During this year, the village saw that people really would pay to see whales, and the tourists began filtering in.
By 2016, most people in Barra de Potosí realized Audley wasn’t going anywhere and accepted her into the community. They would spontaneously swing by her house and discuss sustainable fishing practices. Another grant from the American Cetacean Society San Francisco Bay Chapter helped Audley hire interns, who taught 2,000 kids at 12 nearby schools about whales, nature and science. The money sponsored the young Mexican scientists working on the project to author papers and present research to their peers.
Over the next couple years, a new women’s arts fair continued to gain momentum. Many women would proudly earn more than their husbands’ monthly income. And the tourists who had visited Barra de Potosí kept returning year after year. In 2017, a scientist with access to a drone joined the research team and captured a mother/calf pairs in local waters. “We saw photos of babies resting on moms’ heads, and kept seeing the same mom-calf pairs, and we’ve determined that whales do calve and nurse here. Some seem to have even taken up residence in our bay during the season.”
This year, the last year of the project, they finished the study amassing to 300 research hours annually. By comparing whales seen locally to other fluke catalogs, in collaboration with Cascadia Research Collective, they learned the whales hail from Central America, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. “Every time I go to Monterey, I see whales I know from our area,” she said. “We have about 300 whales in our catalog.”
The Whales of Guerrero team helped grow the local tourism cooperative to be larger and stronger than its fishing counterpart. Now, Audley is looking to publish the research and asking what the village wants to do next. As one of the final initiatives of the project, she will go on a week-long trip to Baja California with 12 community members to see the restored waters and fisheries in Laguna San Ignacio, Cabo Pulmo and Agua Verde. The trip aims to reinforce strong ecotourism practices and culture within the town.
“It was never really about the whales,” she said. “It was always about the community recovering their local ocean.”
Join us Tuesday, July 23, 2019 for Katherina Audley’s presentation“When Whales Win, Everyone Wins: How a Whale Study in Mexico Transformed a Community.”
All photos provided by Whales of Guerrero Research Project