On the Right Track by Vicky Rowntree In September 1994, we embarked on our twenty-fifth field season studying the southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) which appear annually off the shores of the Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. Females come to the protected bays of the Peninsula to rear their young during the calvesU first months of life. For me, 1994 was a wonderful home-coming, my first return in five years. I found the Peninsula changed. The largest town, Puerto Madryn, has grown enormouse population grew as well in my absence. There were 1375 whales in the population in 1988; with a growth rate of 7.1% per year, there are now around 2000 whales. The increase in whales was apparent; I heard a nearly constant serenade of whale blows, snores and splashes through the night from inside my tent. John Atkinson and Kim Marshall conducted the annual aerial photographic census of the whales. We survey the whales by flying over them in a small plane and photographing the individually distinctive white patterns (callosities) on the heads of each whale we encounter. As usual, it was windy for most of our time at the Peninsula, with many days of high waves and whitecaps. Survey attempts are fruitless on days like this because the callosity patterns on the whalesU heads are awash with white water. Finally, with most of the field season behind us, we woke to a calm day. We were able to coordinate the plane, fuel and pilot and Kim and John surveyed the entire 500 kilometer perimeter of the Peninsula over the following two days. The surveys revealed two new findings: 1) the concentration of whales in Golfo Nuevo had shifted from the area it had occupied for the past ten years to an area 50 km to the west, near the busy industrial port of Madryn, and 2) a concentration of what appeared to be sub-adult right whales (with few calves) just to the north of the Peninsula. The right whales in Golfo Nuevo have moved away from an area which is the center of a rapidly growing whale-watch industry. The reason for the shift is not apparent. However, Mariana Martinez Rivarola, Alicia Tagliorette and Claudio Compagna of the Argentine conservation organization Fudacion Patagonia Natural (FPN) have been studying the interactions between whales and whale-watch boats through the time of the shift and may soon be able to comment on the possible effects of disturbance from whale watch activities. The concentration of whales to the north of the Peninsula is very intriguing. Chris Clark and Peter Thomas, who conducted research for their PhD.s at Peninsula Valdes, saw mothers abandon their one- year-old calves in the groups of mothers with newborn calves. Sub- adults are curious, boisterous and often seen in vigorous surface- active groups. Analysis of the air flight photos will tell us if sub- adults are indeed forming their own concentrations at the Peninsula. If so, these groups of adolescents will be particularly interesting to study. For the first time at the Peninsula, a concerted effort was made to collect data and tissue samples from dead whales are washed onto the beaches. Mariana Martinez Rivarola of FPN led the effort this year and we worked with her and Alejandro Arias to collect data. Eight dead calves were found; measurements and tissue samples were collected for genetics, toxins, isotope and tissue structure analysis. We have been concerned about the pox-like marks, which are appearing on an increasing number of whales (39% in 1990.) Unfortunately, none of the stranded individuals had the pox-like marks, so we were unable to make progress in identification of the cause of these marks. Tissue samples collected from stranded individuals can reveal fascinating information about the whales, such as how the whales at Peninsula Valdes are related to other right whales in the southern hemisphere, where the whales go when they leave the Peninsula, baseline toxin levels and the types of diseases carried by the population. Information on deaths is an important part of a population model, and until this year, data had only been collectable on a sporadic basis. The data Mariana collects from stranded whales will make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of right whales at Peninsula Valdes. One of the most disturbing sights at the Peninsula this year was the at times incessant attacks on whales by kelp gulls. The gulls land on the whales and gouge pieces of skin from their backs. Roger Payne commented that the whalesU reactions to the attacks were more violent than any he has ever seen. An attacked whale flinches, suddenly arching its back and swims off rapidly underwater, its speed indicated by the swirls of footprints on the water surface from the motion of its flukes. The gull tracks the whale from overhead, awaiting the next surfacing. Peter Thomas studied this behavior in 1984. He once saw a gull peck the same whaleUs back 178 times in five minutes. In 1984, the attacks were restricted to a small region within Golfo San Jose and aimed almost exclusively at mothers. This year, we watched attacks in other regions of Golfo San Jose as well as in Golfo Nuevo. The gulls are also being less selective. We saw them attack all whales, including calves. Thomas concluded that the responses of the whales to gull attacks, such as frequent rapid travel and resting postures with the back held underwater, may exact a serious energetic cost from nursing mothers who have little energy to spare. He also noted that when whales flee the gulls, they often swim away from the protection of shallow water bays. The possibility that gulls could drive the whales from the Peninsula was discussed at a workshop convened by FPN on the problems facing right whales at Peninsula Valdes. Plans were designed to investigate this possibility. On a happier note, I spent many wonderful hours sitting on the cliffs, watching different whales. I was often assisted by people who just wanted to watch and learn more about whales. At first, people appeared overwhelmed by all that was before them; but as they sat, following one whale and repeatedly recording particular categories of behavior, a brilliant light appeared to go off inside them and by the end of the afternoon, they were transformed by the peaceful time they had spent getting to know another animal. Some of my most thrilling moments involved encounters with old friends. A large mother who we first identified with a calf in 1972 (PV#145) was back again 22 years later with a very rambunctious calf. The mother had an orca scar on her lip and her calf had orca scars on the tips of its tail - a reminder that though orcas are not often seen, mothers must be constantly on guard for orca attacks. I spent another morning watching a mother who was rolling at the surface with a male. I was delighted when I finally identified her as 13-71, a whale that was born in 1971 and had returned in 1994 with her sixth calf. As I folded up my tent in the pouring rain of my last day, I cried too. I wanted more time at the Peninsula where I had been one with the weather, rising with the sun, embroiled in the windUs fury, warmed in the protected pockets of sand, and guided to my tent by starlight so bright that it reflected across the whalesU backs into the night.