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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Double Take: False Killer Whales and Pilot Whales in the Same Day

When the research team carries out odontocete transects, we are looking for all species of toothed whales, but most commonly we see bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins. On rare occasions we see false killer whales, of which the insular Hawaiian population is on the endangered species list, and short-finned pilot whales, which is a deeper water species not commonly found in the shallower waters of our survey area. We might see these two species a handful of days per year. Well, believe it or not, we were recently lucky enough to see them both on the same day!

We were surveying the area behind the island of Lana‘i and we had a feeling it was going to be a special day when we set off from Ma‘alaea Harbor. We had just arrived at the start of our first transect line when we saw a large black dorsal fin. We soon realized that this was a false killer whale. At first we only saw one solitary individual, but it soon swam and joined the rest of its pod, which we estimated at 15 individuals. We photographed them to obtain ID’s for our false killer whale catalog and collected behavioral data. When we were satisfied that we had photographed all the individuals present we returned to our transect line, excited that we had such an exciting experience so early in the day.

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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.

Mugged by whales

Every year, from July to November, humpback whales come to Hervey Bay on their southern migration. In contrast to the open coastline, where whales are in a “migration mode” to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, the bay is shallow, sheltered, and warm. It is the perfect place for the whales to aggregate, rest, and socialize. As a result, whales display a vast array of behaviors and interactions that make Hervey Bay a very unique whalewatching destination. Not surprisingly, some people refer to Hervey Bay as “Australia’s whalewatch capital.”

HB003-PWF

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

In addition to the most common humpback whale behaviors that can be seen in Hervey Bay, such as breaching, tail slapping, head lunging, etc., whales in Hervey Bay will often approach a vessel and stay within close proximity, interacting with people on board for significant periods of time. This behavior is known as “mugging”.

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Mother-Calf Dolphin Resight

On August 12, the research team went out on the water surveying for odontocetes and marine debris. At around 11 am, we sighted a pod of 17 bottlenose dolphins and began taking photographs, as per our protocol. We spent the maximum allowed hour with this pod, giving our interns a chance to try their photo-identification skills and collect as many dorsal fin photographs as possible, as the pod was milling about and not difficult to keep track of. While we were watching the dolphins, we noticed there were two distinct pairings in the pod.

Later that week when we were in the office cataloging and examining the photographs, our analyst Jens noticed that one of the pairs was already in our bottlenose dolphin catalog. The same two individuals had been photographed together as a mother-calf pair  in 2011.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and again on August 12, 2014.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and the pair was seen again on August 12, 2014.

This is pretty neat because using photo-identification we can track how long these two individuals stay together. Bottlenose dolphins have a complex social structure that is very different from odontocetes that live in stable groups like a pod of killer whales. They live in a fission-fusion society, meaning it is dynamic and always changing. However, the association between a mother and calf is one of the strongest bonds in the dolphin society. They will stay together on average for between three and six years, and we know that these two have been together for at least three years. It will be interesting to see what happens to these two individuals in the future.