Are Swim-With-Whale Operations Ethical? PWF Strives to Learn More

Swim-with-whales tours are becoming more and more popular around the world as travelers become increasingly interested in ecotourism and engagement with nature and wildlife. But, with more and more visitors jumping into the backyard of these vulnerable marine mammals, how can we keep track of the effects on their well being? We can’t manage an operation properly if we don’t understand its effects.

So, are swim-with-whales operations ethical? It’s not an easy question. The challenge is that, as interest and demand for these activities grows exponentially, scientific research simply cannot keep up; it takes time, patience, and careful precision to collect reliable data.

Yes, ecotourism is an alternative to the overuse of natural resources. It can also bring money into poor countries that are rich in biodiversity but have little else to offer in terms of world trade. These swim-with-humpback-whale operations are up and running in places such as Tonga, the Dominican Republic, Tahiti, Norway, Western Australia, and the Fraser Coast in Queensland, Australia. But as hard as the governments of these countries might work to ensure that the operations are ecologically viable, many projects are unaudited and not subject to stringent regulations. Pacific Whale Foundation is interested in finding out more about this tourist offering, specifically in Hervey Bay. In 2014, the Queensland government authorized commercial operators to begin immersive “swim-with-whales” tours with the vulnerable humpback whale, and we want to learn more.

Photo taken August 3, 2018 from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. This humpback whale approached the passengers and swam around them a few times.

Our research team has developed an impact study with three objectives:  (1) to better understand if humpback whales change their behaviour due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) to identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) to provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism.

We believe that wherever possible, baseline research into natural behaviour patterns should be carried out before tourism activities are undertaken. This is also a very unique opportunity for the public to get involved with our research, as we allow a limited number of passengers to enter the water as part of our research. Are you interested in being in the water alongside a humpback whale, or learning more about the study? Please visit us here.

We’re excited as we embark on this new adventure, which will have significant implications for humpback whales in Hervey Bay and around the world. Come and join us!

New research study on “Swim-with-Whales” tourism

Beginning in July 2018, our “Swim-with-Whales” Impact Study invites a small number of vessel passengers to enter the water with humpback whales.

In Hervey Bay, Queensland the government has recently authorized commercial tour operators to allow passengers in the water alongside humpback whales and Pacific Whale Foundation wants to conduct scientific research to see how the presence of swimmers affects humpback whales in an important resting area. Our research will help ensure that this tourism activity is developed in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Our data collection supports the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching which state that commercial swim programs should be accompanied by ongoing research to monitor whale and dolphin response to swimmers. This will be an exciting way for the public to get directly involved in citizen science while enjoying the rare opportunity to be in the water alongside a humpback whale, and it will allow our research team to identify any potential detrimental effects of these tours and hopefully mitigate them through adaptive management protocols.

If you’re in Hervey Bay between July and September and you’d like to help our researchers with this study, please visit us at the Great Sandy Straits Marina or book a trip online.

We also encourage you to check out our website for more information on this study and our research in Australia.

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!

Research Team Launches Dolphin and Whale Tracker App

The Pacific Whale Foundation research team has been hard at work creating a new ‘Whale & Dolphin Tracker’ app that is now available for download on the App Store and Google Play. This free app allows members of the public from all over the world to participate in citizen science by recording sighting of marine mammals. Contributors are able to use their mobile phone to record the GPS location of the animals, group size, observed behaviors, as well as upload any photos they may have taken. It’s an exciting way for the public to get more involved with the monitoring and research of marine life.

The Whale and Dolphin Tracker app was initially designed as a tool for PWF’s Marine Naturalists to record marine mammal sightings in the 4-island region of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Lana’i, and Moloka’i. Launching the public app will allow for a greater range of data collection in real time and overall will contribute to the global research database of cetacean species.

Additionally, users can find an interactive live sightings map on the Pacific Whale Foundation website which displays all sightings logged on the app within the past 7 days. Viewers will be able to use species and location filters to observe changes throughout the year.

This app was able to come to life thanks to a successful fundraising venture in 2016. Jens Currie, the Senior Research Analyst at Pacific Whale Foundation, is excited about the crowdsourcing opportunities that are created by the app: “Now that more users will have access to Whale and Dolphin Tracker directly from their phones, our crowdsourcing ability, and geographical coverage will expand, and so will our knowledge of whale and dolphin distribution”. He also added “We just published a research paper on humpback whale distribution using Whale & Dolphin Tracker data, and are excited about the opportunities this app presents for opportunistic data collection.”

Are you excited to get involved with real-time monitoring of cetaceans around the world? Head to the Apple app store or Google Play now to download Whale and Dolphin Tracker and join the team.

Meet our new adoption whales!

Pacific Whale Foundation has two new humpback whales from our North Pacific Humpback Whale Catalog that are available for a symbolic adoption.

Makena is an adoption humpback whale that was named in honor of Greg Kaufman, the Founder of Pacific Whale Foundation.  This whale represents the long-term research Greg did to promote ocean conservation and his effort to be a voice for protecting whales. Makena was first seen in Maui waters as an adult in 1997.  During this first sighting, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers photographed Makena in a surface active pod with five other whales, including a calf.  In 2014, Makena was sighted again in the 4-island region and a photograph of its tail flukes was taken by a member of the public and donated to the research department.  The story of this whale perfectly encapsulates Greg Kaufman’s legacy;  combining our dedicated research study with a citizen scientist program, and promoting marine education and conservation through our animal adoption program.

Sally is a female humpback whale that has become famous in the Maui area thanks to her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  The “fluke-up” behavior is rarely seen in Hawaiian waters, and is referred to by some as “sailing”. Sally was first observed by our researchers exhibiting the “fluke-up” behavior with her calf nearby in 2016.  No one fully understands the purpose of this behavior, but in 2018, this whale once again had a calf and several times throughout the season was seen displaying the same posture. Photos of Sally were donated to the research department from one of our Keiki Whalewatches, and from Naturalist Josh Wittmer aboard PacWhale Eco-Adventures whalewatch.

 

Want to know more about these amazing individuals? When you adopt a marine mammal through our adoption program you get the chance to learn more about the specific animal’s story and get updates on any re-sightings of the individual.  By adopting one of these animals, you will be able to learn more about Makena the whale, or Sally and her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  Check out our website to learn how to adopt one of these magnificent whales, or any of our other marine mammals that are available for adoption from our catalogs.

And remember, when adopting a dolphin or whale you are supporting PWF’s ongoing research, education, and conservation efforts to protect marine life. Thank you for your support!

Updates from the 6th International Marine Debris Conference

The 6th International Marine Debris Conference, held in March 2018, was co-hosted by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the United Nations Environment Programme. Over 700 participants representing more than 50 countries all came together for five days, for one reason: to address global marine debris issues.  The conference was held in San Diego, California; a leading city in addressing marine debris through zero waste initiatives, sustainability, and education. It’s been seven years since the last international marine debris conference in Honolulu, so the goal of this conference was to assess how far we have come in managing marine debris over the past couple of years, and to look toward the future for innovative ways to minimize the impacts of marine debris.

Senior Pacific Whale Foundation researchers, Stephanie Stack and Jens Currie, attended and participated in the conference. Pacific Whale Foundation’s marine debris program is the only program in the Maui 4-island region that conducts on-water research on marine debris distribution and accumulation; although other programs exist, they mostly focus on land-based removal events. While removal of marine debris is an effective method to reduce direct threats, researching debris can help us further understand the source of the debris and how we can best mitigate it from the point of origin, where the greatest impact will occur. At the conference Jens presented PWF’s work on examining debris type and looking at trends in the location and timing of marine debris in the 4-island region of Maui, while Stephanie presented on the risk marine debris poses to whale and dolphin species by considering the overlap between the two in Maui waters.

Our representatives highlighted that keynote speaker, Afroz Shah from Mumbai, India, is a perfect example of how just a few people can make a large impact! Shah shared the story of him and his 84-year neighbor’s frustration with the decomposing state of their beaches.  They took it upon themselves to clean up the beach, one piece of trash at a time. Their efforts inspired others to join them every weekend, which quickly became one of the largest citizen initiatives the world has ever witnessed, collecting over 4,000 tons of trash. Shah was recognized for his work by the United Nations and awarded the 2016 Champion of the Earth award. Similarly, Youth Plenary Speaker, Melati Wijsen, a senior in high school on the island of Bali co-founded the initiative “Bye Bye Plastic Bags.” At 12 and 10-years old, Melati and her sister initiated this social movement, driven by the youth of Bali to get people to say no to plastic bags. These inspirational women were recently featured in a TED talk, check it out here!

Pacific Whale Foundation was proud to attend the conference and be surrounded by a wide range of people and organizations from around the world. Representatives from NGO’s, governments,  the plastic manufacturing industry, and even students from NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology all gathered to learn from each other and work together to develop creative ways to reduce the impacts of marine debris. The 6th International Marine Debris Conference was a great success, and PWF looks forward to applying the lessons learned to our organization and into our individual daily lives!