As the sun glints on calm Caribbean water, a marine biologist patiently scans the horizon. Suddenly the water breaks and mist shoots into the air, first one tall jet then a gentler, smaller blow of vapour. An adult sperm whale and her calf slowly approach the boat – one of only two sperm whale calves ever recorded in Caribbean waters off Colombia.
Hunters killed an estimated three quarters of the global population of sperm whales for a waxy substance called spermaceti that was burnt as a fuel in lamps, until an international moratorium put an end to commercial whaling in the 1980s.
Today, there is limited evidence that the global population is recovering.
“Sperm whales are listed as a vulnerable species,” says Nohelia Farias, the marine biologist who spotted the whale and her calf. “Calves are an encouraging sign for their future.”
As a marine mammal observer, Farias conducts environmental assessments for international energy companies. She observes the wildlife in the seas then reports back – in this case to Shell, which has bought licences to explore fields off the Colombian coast.
The assessments are a compulsory government requirement for any company exploring for oil and gas in Colombian waters, but they also give marine biologists much-needed time at sea.
“Organisations struggle to get information on deep-water species like whales, because having people far from the shore for long periods is expensive,” explains Ana Marroquim, an environmental specialist at Shell.
“If observers are on seismic survey vessels it gives them a great opportunity to also get data on those animals.”
Click below to discover species sighted from Shell ships in 2008-15, and their locations.