"When they were entering the gulf, they started seeing blue whales," says Hucke-Gaete, his voice filled with excitement as he recounts the unexpected discovery. "And they saw another one, and then they finally saw 60 in less than four hours."
It seemed the scientists had stumbled on a large and unknown population of blue whales, but it wasn't easy to confirm their findings.
It took Hucke-Gaete six years to raise the money to come back the Gulf to confirm that what they saw in 1997 wasn't just a one-time occurrence. Each year since 2003 the scientists have been in Corcovado from January to April — the Southern Summer — and so have the whales. They have learned that the whales come to this vast Gulf to feed and nurse their young. Corcovado is a previously unknown refuge that may help save the species.
"The significance of the place is that this is a place they feed; this is a place that is important to them and not only for the adults, it's for calves," explains Hucke-Gaete. "If we find calves, that means the population is recovering and that carries on a big responsibility for us: we need to take care of this place."
Normally whales have to be studied at deep sea and great expense. Corcovado offers a unique opportunity to track the whales close to land for an extended time.
Hucke-Gaete says it's difficult to study whales in part "because they spend 90-98 percent below the surface. So it's really, really difficult. It takes lots of time and lots of patience."
With meager budgets that are mostly consumed by gas that costs $9 a gallon, the scientists spend their days studying the habits and habitat of the whales, photographing and indexing each whale — no two dorsal fins are the same — and collecting tiny samples of their skin. The samples, he says, are "enough to tell us what population this whale belongs to, to know the sex of the animal, to identify it genetically like a forensics lab, that we identify these animals."
They hope to travel to the Museum of Natural History in New York this summer to conduct genetic tests on the samples to see how the Corcovado whales are related to others in the oceans.
Blue whales are not just the largest animals on the planet, they are also the loudest. Researcher Susannah Buchan has come all the way from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to study the sounds these whales make. Like all the science here it takes extraordinary patience, but what she is recoding and hearing is itself extraordinary.
"They vocalize," Buchan explains. "They do talk to each other. Why exactly, we're not entirely sure."
She's also not entirely sure that the sounds she's recorded really are from the blue whale, because they are unlike anything anyone has heard before. Buchan describes it as "sort of like a whistle, like a high whistle."
Buchan played some of the sounds for us. At first we heard a very low repetitive sound usually associated with whale, like a jackhammer. Then an extraordinary high sound.
"We're very cautious about saying that this is a blue whale vocalization. This is what I have been recording near the whales. But I really can't say if this is blue whale vocalization just because the sound is so high."
If the sounds can be confirmed they may help match this population with others — like an acoustic DNA.