Pilot whale encounters 30 miles offshore

Our Research Team has begun surveying the deeper waters southwest of Maui as part of our new false killer whale study. The first day of research took us ~30 nautical miles off the coast of Maui in waters >2,500 feet. Although we didn’t see any false killer whales, we did have two encounters with short-finned pilot whales, a species we do not typically observe in the near-shore waters of the Maui 4-island region. This species has distinctive bulbous heads, wide dorsal fins, and sleek black bodies. Short-finned pilot whales are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females look different. Males typically grow to 18 ft long compared to females who grow to an average length of 12 ft. The dorsal fins on males are also larger and wider than females, making it easy to tell the two apart.

During our encounter with short-finned pilot whales, two researchers were taking above water photographs of the whale’s dorsal fins, another researcher was collecting underwater footage using a pole-mounted camera, while a fourth research was collecting detailed observations on pod behavior and composition. We observed two mother-calf pairs, two subadults, and the rest were adults, spread out into smaller sub-groups of 2-3 individuals. During the encounters we observed the pod feeding and resting at the surface of the water.

The majority of our research takes place after our field work ends, because the data we collected in the field must be processed. This involved looking through 520 pictures of dorsal fins, assessing each image’s quality, and matching each image within the encounter to see how many different individuals we saw. After data processing was completed, we had photographically identified 19 different animals. These individuals were then compared to our existing catalog of 133 short-finned pilot whales to see if any have been previously sighted. One individual matched to our catalog and was sighted back in September 2002. The other 18 animals had never been seen before and were added as new individuals, increasing our catalog size to 152 individuals. Since we do not often see this species, it was expected that there would be many new individuals to add, as the estimated population size for the entire Hawaiian Islands EEZ is 12,422 whales (Bradford et al. 2013).

This was a very successful day offshore! Stay tuned for other research updates from this exciting new study.

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.

Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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Whale Tales – Stories from Across the Sea by a PWF Naturalist

Maui is certainly one of the most spectacular places in the world to watch humpback whales in their breeding grounds. But when those of us in Hawaii bid these animals aloha in the spring as they journey north to their feeding grounds, a few PWF naturalists follow suit and head to other parts of the world to experience a summer whale season and the different types of wildlife, and behaviors, that entails. May through September is the prime time to watch humpbacks and other migratory whales in their feeding grounds up north – Alaska and the upper coastlines of the west and eastern U.S. are a few of our favorite options.

Many of our amazing naturalists stay in Maui year round (it is, after all, hard to find a reason to leave); there’s so much to see and do during the summer in Maui, and Pacific Whale Foundation’s snorkel and dolphin watch cruises offer visitors an exciting chance to see many beautiful marine creatures that call Maui home besides our winter whale visitors. Others of us take this time to journey abroad, or across the U.S., for different eco-tourism jobs and have ended up in Massachusetts, or Alaska, or California, or Washington. In this post, I want to highlight my summer experiences away from Maui, and in future posts I plan to talk with other naturalists who have also moved away to work in the conservation field.

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Naturalist Spotlight: Maddie Buresh

“So what brought you out here? And … how? How did you do it?”

We get this question a lot. Many folks are fascinated by the steps it takes to become a Pacific Whale Foundation certified Marine Naturalist. Our naturalists are college grads from all over the country – Minnesota, Kansas, California, Idaho, Florida, you name the state – we’ve most likely had a naturalist from there. The majority of us applied online and had numerous phone and Skype interviews, where we were able to show our enthusiasm and demonstrate our knowledge of marine conservation. Plenty of us had other experiences outside of college before we started here, including marine mammal research, internships, and other field work. Our hiring managers must have an incredibly difficult time making their selections from all the interested and skilled applicants – who doesn’t want to move to Maui?

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Marine Biologist & Mai Tai Maker: My Life as a PWF Marine Naturalist

I can’t count the number of times a guest on our boat will come up to me, enthusiastically gushing “You have the most amazing job!” or “Wow, what an office!” It’s true — I do have a great job and the best view at PacWhale. As ECO team members, we encounter incredible marine wildlife on a daily basis, and we are doing meaningful conservation and education work. But there’s a lot more to being a Marine Naturalist than meets the eye.

For starters … who serves up crumbly apple danishes and yummy banana bread slices for breakfast? The naturalists do! Who makes sure everyone is properly caffeinated, sun-screened, and snorkeling gear-equipped? We do! Who makes sure all questions are answered and reasonable requests fulfilled so our wonderful guests can have the best day of their vacation? Why, the naturalists of course!

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