Green Giving Holiday Challenge

The holiday season is upon us. It is a time for generosity and thankfulness, which often takes the form of gift giving between our loved ones. However, this generous spirit can also lead to massive consumption and waste.

Waste in the U.S. increases 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. That means an additional 1 million tons of waste each week heads into our already overflowing landfills. In Hawai‘i, this is even more critical due to limited space, lack of recycling facilities and landfill alternatives. At Pacific Whale Foundation, we see the impact of things people have “thrown away” because they end up on our beaches and in the oceans damaging marine habitats and animals directly.

So let’s work together to think about how our choices today can influence our world tomorrow. This holiday season, we can demonstrate our values and commitment to the environment with the gifts we choose and the companies we support.

Pacific Whale Foundation offers eco-conscious products in its Ocean Stores and prides itself on the many green features aboard our seven vessels. We strive to find as many ways as possible to make the green choice the easy choice and the only choice, when possible, for our staff, our passengers, our volunteers and our members.

Commit to trying out one or all 4 of these simple tips below for a greener holiday:

  •         Buy Green Gifts: Try to find gifts made out of recycled materials and without excessive packaging. Look for businesses that have been certified as environmentally and socially responsible (like us!). Buy a gift that creates a positive impact for others. Consider a cause that you or your loved one is passionate about and make a charitable donation in their honor. At Pacific Whale Foundation, you can Adopt or Name a Marine Animal on behalf of someone else, which designates them as a certified advocate and protector of that special animal and species. This is an especially popular gift for children and helps to inspire a lifetime of environmental stewardship and advocacy.
  •         Make your own gifts: Create art or jewelry; bake cookies; sew; knit; plant a garden; write a poem; write recipes; make wreaths; anything where you use your hands, heart and mind. We’ve made one step easy for you with a zero waste holiday card to send!
  •         Use creative, alternative wrapping: Scarves or fabric you have around the house; reusable bags or tins; old calendars, newspaper, or maps; brown paper bags you can decorate yourself. If you love festive wrapping paper then look for a label indicating recycled content (like we use in our ocean store) was used to make the paper (not just the famous recycle symbol, which typically just means the paper is recyclable after use). Consider this: If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
  •         Buy Local: Buying products from local businesses means significantly more of your dollars are being used to make purchases from other local businesses, service providers, and farms — strengthening the economic base of the whole community. Also, because local companies are much more likely to make purchases from other local businesses, less transportation is required, reducing harmful emissions. It is also easier to know if the company supports the community and environment, in addition to its bottom line. Consider buying experience-based gifts with zero waste that support local businesses, like a gift certificate to Northshore zipline (who offers a discount to PWF members), or go on a whalewatching cruise.

This holiday season, enjoy your ‘ohana while doing what you can to ensure a better world for their future.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Ocean Stewards

Dedicated to inspiring future ocean stewards, Pacific Whale Foundation has been engaging the Hawaii community with our Keiki Whalewatch program for over 30 years now, encouraging local schoolchildren to learn about our oceans by getting a closer look at whales and other marine animals, each participating onboard our floating classroom vessels, as well as customized classroom lessons.

Education Manager Robyn Elrich heads up the program and says it is one of her favorite parts of the job. “The program provides an opportunity for students to get a face-to-fluke experience with humpback whales. For me, the program provides an opportunity to spend time with students and introduce them to the amazing creatures that spend the winter right here in our own backyard. I begin every program by asking the students this question: who has ever been on a boat to watch whales before? Their responses always remind me why we offer this program; for a majority of students, this is their first experience on a boat to watch whales. The students’ excitement and enthusiasm as they see their very first humpback whale up close is amazing! The experience gives students a new appreciation of humpback whales and ocean ecosystems. It is this awe and appreciation that inspires students to care for the ocean and begin to become ocean stewards.”

The Keiki Whalewatch also offers the option for students to learn about humpback whales through grade-level appropriate, hands-on classroom programs. Our 2019 Keiki Whalewatch season will also include some exciting new additions to our previously offered classroom programs. In 2019, our life-size inflatable humpback whale, Harry, generously donated by Deanna LaSusa-Hotchner of Discover the Depths, will make his debut in Maui schools. This life-size model of a humpback whale, complete with internal anatomy, will not only allow students to truly understand the size of a humpback whale, but also spend time inside a whale! Our neighbors at the Maui Ocean Center have almost completed their new humpback whale exhibit and 3D sphere theater, and have partnered with us to offer these experiences to Keiki Whalewatch program participants.

We offer the Keiki Whalewatch program at a heavily subsidized rate in order to enable access to all Maui County students. One generous PWF donor enabled us to bring the Keiki Whalewatch program to students on the islands of Molokai and Lana’i for the first time ever in January of 2018. We hope to sponsor this program again in 2019 with funds raised by our Online Auction. With over 100 items to choose from, many being donated by local companies, and bids starting well below the retail value, there is something for everyone.

Bidding is open November 10-19 at

Research in Australia 2018 Field Report

Our research team has finished up data collection from the 2018 field season, and what a season it was! Pacific Whale Foundation has been studying humpback whales in Hervey Bay for over 30 years, providing us with long-term sightings data in the form of our South Pacific Humpback Whale Catalogue. In 2018, we took over 10,000 research photos onboard Ocean Defender, including flukes, dorsal fins, injuries or skin lesions, and photos of the genital area to determine sex. We are still processing the data, but several of the whales from the early part of the season have been new to our catalog. Since subadults comprise the majority of pods in the beginning of the season, and the population is estimated to be steadily increasing, this result is somewhat expected, and we look forward to finding out how many additional new animals we may have as well as how many repeat visitors we have seen this season.

Along with our ongoing photo-identification work, this year was the first in our Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. We completed 19 trips towards this research study with 134 total swimmers who helped to make this study possible. This study allows our researchers to assess whether commercial swim-with-whales operations in Queensland are affecting the behavior of humpback whales. Using detailed behavioral observations before, during, and after swimmers are in the water with whales, we can look for patterns and changes in the whales’ behaviors; any such patterns can help determine best practices for this new, immersive form of tourism.

Another highlight of the season was the number of different species seen on our trips. Along with our familiar humpback whales, we saw southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins, Australian humpback dolphins, dwarf minke whales, dugongs, green sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, a hammerhead shark, a tiger shark, dingoes, and several species of seabirds. Although we don’t specifically study these species, it is always exciting to see the other inhabitants of this very special ecosystem.

Whales divided: how adults and calves use Hervey Bay differently

If you go whalewatching in Hervey Bay after mid-September, you may notice that there is a calf in nearly every pod you see. Mothers with calves are typically the last to arrive in the bay, and they may be the group that benefits most from the shallow, protected waters near Fraser Island.

Our research on the East Australia population of humpback whales allows us to ask questions about long-term trends in behavior and habitat use within the area. Using sighting data collected by our research team from 2004 – 2016, we looked at whether pods with a calf preferred different areas of the bay compared to pods without a calf. As it turns out, mothers with calves do show a preference for an place just inside the U-shaped coastline of Fraser Island, known colloquially by whalewatch operators as “the pocket”. Pods without a calf show an opposite preference for waters a bit farther offshore.

Although depth and distance to shore do not vary much throughout the bay due to the overall shallow waters and the U-shape of the coastline, mothers may prefer that area because it might be the most protected from rougher weather conditions. They may also use it as a place to avoid pursuing males and competition pods. Pods that do not have a calf may prefer the area slightly farther out of the pocket if they are seeking mating or socializing opportunities from other adults or subadults.

The study provides a baseline to compare future observations of whale distribution within the Hervey Bay area, particularly as this population continues to coexist with human activities in the bay including recreational boating, commercial whalewatching, and swim-with-whales tourism.

How can you tell a male and female humpback whale apart?

In many animals, different sexes have different appearances, with males often being larger, showier, or both: think of brightly colored male songbirds or male lions with their luscious manes. For humpback whales, however, this is not the case. Apart from females being slightly larger than males on average, humpback whale males and females look very similar to each other, making it very difficult to visually determine sex. Adding to this, all reproductive organs in both females and males are neatly tucked away behind a genital slit to help them be more hydrodynamic and sleek in the water.

Luckily for us researchers, though, we have a few tricks up our sleeves to tell the difference between the sexes, allowing us to collect additional data for our photo-identification catalog.

The easiest way to determine a female humpback whale is a close association with a calf. Mothers and calves maintain a strong bond throughout the first year of the calf’s life, so when we see an adult whale closely accompanied by a calf, we can safely assume that she is the mother of that calf.

In the absence of a calf, though, things become trickier. If the whales roll over onto their backs, often we can see the genital slit on their abdomen. The relative location of the genital slit offers some clues: For males, the genital slit is located closer to the whale’s belly, while the females’ genital slit is closer to their tail flukes. Immediately towards the tail from the genital slit, females have a grapefruit-sized lump known as a hemispherical lobe. No one knows what exactly this structure does, but we do know that it is only present on females. Females also have two mammary slits, one on either side of the genital slit, which they will use when nursing their calves.

Click through the photos in this gallery and our researchers will explain how we were able to identify the sex of these humpback whales

When we are able to determine the sex of a whale, this information is included along with the animal’s fluke photo when it is added to the catalog. Knowing the sex of different individuals enables us to more accurately determine calving rate and sex ratios of different habitat areas.

Southern right whales in Hervey Bay

This season, humpback whales haven’t been the only large baleen whale sighted in Hervey Bay. We have also had several sightings of mother-calf pairs of southern right whales, a rare species for this area. The first pair was seen in July, and there have been many additional sightings over the past several weeks, much to the surprise and delight of passengers and staff onboard Ocean Defender.

All right whales have white patches of rough skin on their heads called callosities. The pattern of callosities is unique to each individual whale, and researchers use these patterns to identify right whales much in the same way that we use fluke patterns to identify humpback whales. Using the patterns of callosities, we have been able to recognize at least three different mothers that have been sighted this season.

These mothers belong to the southeast Australia population, which is more commonly seen farther south in Victoria and New South Wales. Similar to humpback whales, southern right whales prefer relatively warmer, calmer waters for their calves, but they do not typically travel all the way to tropical areas. In fact, Hervey Bay is considered the extreme northern extent of their range. Southern right whales were hunted extensively since their slow swimming speeds and thick blubber made them the “right” whale to kill, particularly before the industrial era of whaling. The populations are recovering, though, and it is encouraging to see these mothers and calves along the east coast of Australia.

Looking back through the past several years of data from Hervey Bay, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers have only seen right whales in the area in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2012 prior to this year. In those years, there were also fewer sightings: 2009 and 2012 each had sightings on two days, but our team only saw right whales a single time in 2007 and 2009. Although we can’t say for sure why these mothers and calves decided to visit Hervey Bay for such an extended time this season, it will certainly be interesting to see what future years bring for sightings of this amazing species.

Although Pacific Whale Foundation does not currently study southern right whales, our research team is collecting data and submitting all sightings and identification photos to the Australian Marine Mammal Centre which maintains a catalog of this population.