Salt water sprays across the bow as the captain steers into the wind. Bracing herself against a guardrail, Cristina Castro, a researcher with the Pacific Whale Foundation, points toward the horizon, where the gray-blue sea meets the gloomy skies above. At first, there is nothing.
But then a smooth, black form breaches the choppy water like a surfacing submarine: a humpback whale. A stubby dorsal fin, then the body grows narrow. One final flap of the tail, and the magnificent creature is gone.
Another soon takes its place. It appears there are three whales, swimming alongside what must be 40 dolphins. Castro makes a run for her camera—such mixed pods are a rare treat, even here at a prime whale-watching locale near Puerto López, Ecuador.
Ecuador, as it turns out, is less a hunk of land than a stretch of open ocean: The country’s maritime territory is five times larger than its continental one. And, in addition to being home to humpbacks and dolphins, these coastal waters host one of the world’s largest aggregations of giant manta rays. Then, of course, there are the whale sharks, the largest fish on the planet.
All of which explains why it is so troubling to see, later that day, a lone humpback surface, tangled in a tattered yellow fishing net. Seemingly exhausted, it rests motionless on the surface. Every time the boat comes close, the whale dives, dragging with it a long strand of fishing floats. Although this area is a marine reserve, the whale could have run into the abandoned “ghost gear” floating just about anywhere. The captain notifies park authorities, who deal with such entanglements more often than one would hope, and two days later they are able to save the whale.
The episode is a reminder that whales aren’t the only ones plying these waters, and protecting an ocean ecosystem is a daunting task.
“We are a fishing nation,” says Pablo Guerrero, fisheries director for WWF-Ecuador, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Along with controlling one-tenth of the world’s canned tuna market, Ecuador also has some 30,000 to 46,000 small fishing vessels, believed to be the largest artisanal fishing fleet in South America. This diversity creates a chaotic fishing environment fraught with conflicts.