Exciting matches in South Pacific catalog

We have been busy in the research department adding humpback whales from the 2016 Hervey Bay field season into our South Pacific humpback whale catalog. Along with adding some new animals, we have already made two matches, which is quite a feat considering that each new photo has to be checked against over 6000 others.

The two matched whales were each sighted with a calf during this field season, meaning we can confidently know that they are females. Both females have a long sighting history going back to 1993. Although we don’t know their exact ages, this sighting span means that both animals are at least 23 years old. As we continue to process the 2016 field data, we’re looking forward to making additional matches like these two in order to help us learn more about the South Pacific humpback whales.

Watching Whales from Land

Did you know that Pacific Whale Foundation studies Maui’s humpback whales from land? Using a piece of equipment called a theodolite, we observe the whales’ behavior and recreate their path of travel. You may have seen a theodolite being used on the side of the road—it sits on a tripod and is commonly used for roadwork and construction projects. It has a powerful telescope that allows our researchers to view whales up to three miles away from shore. Using this telescope, we can determine the overall behavior of the pod, how many animals are in the group, and whether there are any calves present. Once the whales come to the surface, the researcher finds them in the telescope, and the theodolite measures angles between the researcher and the whales. These measurements provide a track of the whales’ location without using more invasive methods such as placing tags on the animals.

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Fluke-Up Feeding in Hawaiian Waters

In the past few weeks our office has received numerous calls from concerned citizens about seeing a whale in distress.  The whale observed is spending long periods of time at the surface with its flukes extended above the water’s surface.  Some have conjectured that it is a whale using its tail flukes to sail; others have suggested it is attempting to cool down using its tail as a thermoregulatory device.

We believe a different hypothesis to be true.  The whale with the extended flukes is most likely a female humpback with a newborn calf. The mother is resting while still allowing her calf access to her mammary glands (located near the posterior portion of her body some 6-8 feet from her flukes).  By extending her tail into the air she is able to keep her body relatively close to the surface, allowing her to rest while minimizing dive depths for her young calf.  The calf is then able to nurse at will and expend less energy.

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Underwater footage of humpback whales reveals penis extrusion

The research team was enjoying a lunch break on the water after completing a morning of transect surveys, when we noticed a nearby competition pod. We realized that the whales were headed towards us and decided to put our GoPro camera in the water to document the behavior. To our amazement, we had filmed something we never expected to see – one of the whales was swimming with its penis out!

A humpback whale penis can be up to 10 feet long and is normally concealed inside the animal’s genital slit. Seeing the penis extrude from this slit is a rare sight, which is why we were so astonished and pleased about the footage.

What is a “competition pod” or “comp pod”? If you have been on a whalewatch you may have heard this term before. It is something commonly witnessed in the humpback whale breeding grounds, such as Hawai`i.

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Coral Reef Survey

Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) was recently contacted by WHALE Environmental Services LLC and asked if we were interested in a collaboration, as this Oahu-based company was planning to undertake a pilot project to survey the West Maui coral reefs. PWF was very keen to take part, and so we made arrangements to take our research vessel, Ocean Protector, out as a diving vessel for a change.

Using a standardized method, we made very short dives at 14 coral reefs along the coast of West Maui, between Ma’alaea Harbor and Honolua Bay. While scuba diving, we took note of various factors which would be used to indicate reef health, such as:

  • the number of coral species observed
  • the number of fish species observed
  • signs of pollution
  • signs of erosion
  • signs of coral disease or bleaching
  • signs of fishing pressure
  • signs of stormwater entry at the site

It was interesting to see the stark differences between a healthy reef and an unhealthy reef. This project is a baseline study – meaning that we are recording the current state of these reefs so we have a measurable starting point and can monitor the reef and detect any changes in the future. In science it is very important to record a baseline so you know when changes are happening. You then have data on how fast or slow changes are occurring, or in what locations.

While we await the results of the report that is being prepared, the research department is back to its usual summer routine of carrying out transect surveys for dolphins and marine debris.

What do Whales and Cats have in common?

Marine mammals have a reflective layer behind the retina of their eye called tapetum lucidum, which is Latin for “bright tapestry”. It is this same reflective layer that causes the eyes of cats to glow at night. This layer enhances the ability of an animal to see under low light conditions by reflecting light back through the retina a second time, making the most of available light.

Cat eye reflection from camera flash. Photo courtesy of Shanoaleigh Roseby.

Cat eye reflection from camera flash. Photo courtesy of Shanoaleigh Roseby.

The retina of baleen whale’s eyes contains mostly rod cells, which are sensitive to low intensity light, while cone cells, which distinguish between different colors and are most sensitive to bright light, are less abundant. This means that whales are most likely to see the world in shades of grey.

Humpback Whale Eye

Humpback Whale Eye