Expedition down under

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers arrived this week in Hervey Bay, a quaint community in northern Queensland. For the next few months, I will be documenting research efforts and managing our little shop as humpback whales make their annual migration from the subtropic waters of eastern Australia to their feeding grounds of Antarctica. Stephanie Stack, M.Sc. PWF’s Senior Research Biologist and Research Assistant Laura Behm will be photographing flukes and recording data of daily sightings for ongoing research in the area.

Began in 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia humpback whale research program is the longest running study of this population. The overarching goal of PWF’s research is to advance understanding of humpback whale biology, population status and impacts of human activities on the population. PWF’s Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale ID Catalog is a compilation of 31 seasons of research, combining detailed data on life history, behavior, spatial distribution, and human impacts.

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Promising partnership in Guatemala

Whalewatching continues to grow globally with new markets emerging. Guatemala is the latest country seeking to develop whale watch operations off its Pacific coast focusing on the annual migration of humpback whales that migrate through their waters December through June. The humpbacks are thought to be en route to/from their breeding and calving grounds off Costa Rica, and likely spend their summer months feeding near central California northward to BC, Canada.

Greg Kaufman, founder of Pacific Whale Foundation recently traveled to the small coastal community of Montericco, Guatemala — best known for its 20km- long nature reserve of coast and coastal mangrove wetlands — to speak with tour operators about whalewatching and learn first-hand their challenges and whale observations.

The department of tourism, INGUAT, reached out to Kaufman for advice on this new developing industry. They stressed the importance of wanting to take a scientific approach to cultivate sustainable tourism in the area. Kaufman shared his thoughts on regulation and responsible practices.

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#PWFSaveTheWhales: 35 Ways to Save the Whales on our 35th Anniversary

35 yearsThirty five years ago, Pacific Whale Foundation was founded with the primary goal of saving the humpback whales, which were dangerously close to extinction in 1980. Now, our mission is to protect our oceans through science and advocacy. In our 35 years as an organization, we’re proud to have had ocean conservation victories on behalf of the whales.

A few highlights from years past include stopping the operation of a high speed ferry through calving grounds, banning plastic bags in Maui County and banning smoking and tobacco use at Maui County beaches and parks, banning the display of captive cetaceans in Maui County, and helping to designate the false killer whale as an endangered species. Learn more here.

However, humpback whales are not “out of the woods” yet. Humpback whales are still on the endangered species list and still have many threats facing them. At the top of the food chain, whales have an important role in the overall health of the ocean. Though whale protections and public awareness of the inhumaneness of whaling have improved, unfortunately seven out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection.  What are threats to whales and how can we help save them?

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Mugged on the first Ultimate Whalewatch of 2015

On January 13th, the research team ran the first Ultimate Whalewatch cruise of the 2014/2015 whale season. Mother Nature was on our side that day, with perfect calm weather conditions.

Over the past week or so, the research team had been sighting more and more humpback whales in Ma’alaea Bay, including mother-calf pairs, so our 30 guests were in for a good whalewatch trip on Ocean Liberty.

As expected, a few whale pods were sighted a few minutes into the trip. At a later stage, we were even spoiled for choice, with whales left, right and center. Captain Curtis decided to follow one of the competition pods that displayed a lot of surface activity, very close to Ma’alaea Harbor and Sugar Beach. That decision paid off.

Over time, the number of escorts dwindled down from five to just two. At one point, one of the adults, presumed to be the female in the original pod, approached the vessel so close that, when it exhaled, the blow hit a few passengers. The whale then slowly swam under the vessel, giving everyone on board enough time to admire the sheer size of this animal. What a great photo opportunity that was.

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Underwater Footage of Whales and Dolphins Interacting

If two animals share the same environment, then at some point they are likely to meet. In the wild these meetings are often between predator and prey; however, nature isn’t always so cruel. Some such encounters, referred to as “interspecies interactions,” can be playful or social, where neither individual is threatened.

 

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Freeing the Whales

Entanglement in fishing gear is responsible for the death of an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins each year. Last year, a total of 13 individual humpbacks were confirmed entangled in Hawai’i waters. It was the highest annual number of confirmed large whale entanglements in Hawai’i since reporting began in 2002. While 13 confirmed entanglements is a far cry from 300,000 animals, the issue hits home when it happens right in your backyard.

On Maui, the Hawai’i Disentanglement Network is responsible for responding to large whale entanglements. The Network is comprised of Sanctuary staff, tour boat operators, commercial airline pilots, tugboat captains, fishers, researchers, and private citizens. The Network relies on these individuals to alert the proper authorities of an entanglement. On-the-water efforts to disentangle animals are led by the Sanctuary’s Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator, Ed Lyman.

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