New research study on false killer whales

The Research Team is excited to announce that we have started a new study on false killer whales! We started field work for this study in May 2018 and will survey the leeward waters surrounding the Maui 4-island region; up to 50 miles offshore. This brings us into deep waters (> 2,500 ft) where the possibility of seeing other species is also very likely. In case this does happen, we also have authorization to collect data and photo-ID of 15 other toothed-whale species. The main objectives of this study are to assess the distribution, population structure, habitat use, body condition, and behavior of false killer whales.

The majority of false killer whales encountered within the waters of the Maui 4-island region are part of the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) insular stock which is currently listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The minimum population estimate for the MHI insular stock is 151, based on the number of unique individuals photographed (Baird et al. 2013). This stock faces a number of threats such as the effects from small population size, high levels of contaminants, interactions with fisheries, and a decrease in their prey species biomass.

Given the “endangered” status of the MHI insular false killer whales, there is a need to gain a better understanding of the species in order to develop effective management plans to aid in their recovery. Our research will provide a continuous, long-term data set using new techniques and technologies to  address gaps in our knowledge of this population. In addition to photo-identification, location, and behavioral observations, we will be using unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly called ‘drones’), photogrammetry, and underwater footage to gain information on body condition, growth rates, and possibly detect pregnant females.

We are excited to begin this new study and to learn more about this endangered population. Stay tuned for updates from the field!

What’s it like to do a research internship at PWF?

On the first field day for our two summer interns, you could sense the excitement as we set out on our research vessel, Ocean Protector, to survey for dolphins. Pacific Whale Foundation Research Department offers internships that give individuals the opportunity to get hands on experience in collecting and analyzing field data on marine mammals.

During our survey the interns were overjoyed when we came across a pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, as it was the first time ever seeing this species of dolphin for both young researchers. Spinner dolphins are named for their acrobatic spinning leaps that are unique to this species. These dolphins can spin up to seven times when they propel themselves out of the water. Scientists do not know for certain why they spin, but believe the dolphins may use the aerial spinning behavior as a form of communication or as a way to remove parasites.

As the interns took turns on the research camera, trying to capture photos of individual dorsal fins, they made several important observations about the group of around 80 spinner dolphins that we encountered.  They were first struck by the sheer size of the group. Spinner dolphins are usually sighted in large groups of 100-1000 individuals. The interns quickly learned that it can be very overwhelming to take photographs and get an accurate group count of the animals since multiple dolphins will surface at the same time. Due to these difficulties, we also use underwater footage captured on a GoPro to help us gather data on group size. As we continued following the pod and collect data, one of the interns asked why the animals were not spinning. We explained to the interns that spinner dolphins here in Hawaii typically rest during the day time, and feed in large groups offshore at night. Spinner dolphins’ resting behavior usually involves slow swimming, but spins and leaps can also be observed on occasion and can be a sign that the pod has been disturbed. After spending a memorable hour collecting the data and photos needed, we continued on with our field day.

Once back in the office, the interns got the chance to process the data that was collected in the field.  This involves looking through the photos that were taken, finding the best photo of each individual, and matching the individuals to our existing spinner dolphin catalog. The interns matched the photos to our spinner dolphin catalog that currently has 438 individuals, and found 27 matches. The current population of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the Maui 4-island region is unknown; our catalog will to help us estimate the number of individuals and look at their distribution and movements. These valuable data will help us protect these dolphins, which are facing increasing disturbances and threats from human interactions.

Kaho’olawe Island Restoration

In February 2018 twelve Pacific Whale Foundation volunteers participated in a public access to one of Hawaii’s most sacred islands – Kaho’olawe. Kaho’olawe is believed to be the kino lau or manifestation of Kanaloa a sacred ground for the people of Hawaii to practice and embrace their culture. This island is known as the piko, or navel of the Hawaiian islands, the crossroads of past and future generations where Hawaiian culture was spread. But the history of Kaho’olawe has not been an easy one. The island is thought to have been settled by Native Hawaiians since 400 AD but, as the years went on, a dark evolution of the island began to take place.

In the 1800’s it was used as a penal colony for adult men, in the early 1900’s the uncontrolled grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats on the ranch lands started to decimate native vegetation. In 1953, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy took the island under Martial Law as a bombing site. Ordnance were dropped on Kaho’olawe until the early 1990’s, destroying sections of land, eliminating acres of native vegetation, and causing massive amounts of erosion to come from the island.

In 2004 the process of removing unexploded ordnance from the island started, in hopes of restoring it to its once accessible state. Around 75% of the surface area of Kaho’olawe is cleared today and, of this, 11% is cleared to a depth of 4 feet. The next step in the restoration project has been to re-plant native vegetation to stunt the erosion and combat the extensive network of invasive plants that have moved in.

Nowadays so many volunteers apply to assist with this restoration that there is a multi-year waiting list. After a three year wait, a small group of Pacific Whale Foundation employees were admitted access to Kaho’olawe with a conservation mission to help restore the island. Our staff spent three days pulling invasive plant species and replacing them with over 1,000 new native plants, while exploring and learning of the cultural significance this island has to the Hawaiian people. Our staff were honored and  privileged to be allowed to partake in this conservation experience of a lifetime. Hard work and dedication to restoring this island was given to Kaho’olawe by a small group of volunteers, upholding one of Pacific Whale Foundation’s main tiers, conservation and environmental stewardship.

 

Kaho’olawe has generations of restoration work ahead of it, but with passionate volunteers dedicated to conservation and cultural understanding, this island will hopefully one day be restored.