for National Geographic News
Hundreds of humpback whales spend their winter months breeding, giving birth, and caring for their young in Mexico's sun-splashed Bahia de Banderas to the delight of the millions of tourists who flock to the resort community of Puerto Vallarta each year.
The humpbacks and most of the tourists have gone north for the summer. The whale breeding season runs from November through April and coincides with the high season for tourists seeking warm sun during the Northern Hemisphere's winter.
Morning rains now drench the streets, which bake and steam throughout the day. Maru Rodriguez and Eduardo Lugo hunker down by a fan indoors and pore over the data they collected during the winter.
Rodriguez, a marine biologist trained at the University of Guadalajara, and her partner Lugo, an acclaimed wildlife photographer, have identified and studied the behavior of nearly 400 individual humpback whales that winter in the bay each year.
The team conducts their research in the company of tourists who sign up for a day of whale watching with their guide service, Wildlife Connection. The company is one of a handful in the bay attempting to clean up Mexico's unregulated whale-watching industry.
"We try to make the tours educational. We try to [help] the tourists learn something," said Rodriguez.
Jorge Urbán, a marine biologist at Universidad Autónoma del Baja California Sur in La Paz, Mexico and an expert on humpback whales, said that many of the tour groups approach too close to the humpbacks as they attempt to give their clients the thrill of "swimming with the whales."
"I know Maru and Eduardo are concerned about the unregulated whale-watching activities," he said.
Rodriguez and Lugo are documenting which parts of the bay are important for the successful breeding and survival of the humpbacks. The species was nearly hunted to extinction before the International Whaling Commission banned humpback harvesting in 1966.
Researchers identify whales by the unique markings on the belly- or back-side of their tails. Humpbacks lift their tails out of the water before diving, making them visible to scientists, photographers, and tourists on boats zipping across the bay.
"I'm the wildlife biologist. He takes the pictures," said Rodriguez of her partnership with Lugo. "But it is a collaboration. I put order to his pictures."
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