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!

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.

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!

The Results Are In: The 2017 Australia Research Recap

Another exciting whalewatch season is drawing to an end here in Hervey Bay, Australia. It has been a productive time for our Researchers-on-Board as we have continued to collect photo-identification data and educate our guests on the importance of the research upon which Pacific Whale Foundation has built its legacy.

From the beginning of the whalewatch season on July 15 through September 30, Ocean Defender has embarked on 96 whalewatches, which have served as platforms for our researchers to collect photos and observational data from the humpback whales.  Those trips have taken us a total of 3,767 nautical miles to encounter 402 pods of humpback whales. The researchers double as Marine Naturalists on these trips, engaging the public as part of our internationally recognized model of responsible whalewatching.

After photographs and data are collected in the field by our team in Australia, the dedicated research staff at our Maui headquarters analyzes and catalogs it, adding to our ever-expanding knowledge of these humpback whales. This season has yielded over 1,300 photos and some interesting additions to our South Pacific humpback whale catalog.

Our Research Department has added 18 new individual humpback whales from this whalewatching season to our catalog, which currently contains approximately 6,000 individual whales from several habitat areas.

Three humpback whales seen during the 2017 season were matched to our catalog: #3586, #2177,  and #0680. Whale #3586 was first sighted in 2006 before being sighted again in 2008 and 2017. Whale #2177, a female, was first sighted in 1999, seen with her calf in 2007, and seen without a calf in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Whale #0680, named “Uluru”, is one of our adoption animals, and she has had a calf for all of her sightings: 1989, 1993, 1995, 2006, and 2017.

Each individual added to the catalog or re-sighted provides us with more information that we can use to learn about these whales’ migrations, breeding characteristics, and life histories. Hervey Bay represents a unique habitat as a migratory stopover, and our researchers are interested in determining how humpback whales, especially mothers with calves, use this area. Pacific Whale Foundation additionally invites you to participate in our research as a citizen scientist. Whether you would like to submit your own fluke photos or assist in analyzing humpback whale photo-ID images with Match My Whale, we invite you to help with this exciting and important research project.

No butts on the beach!

Pacific Whale Foundation received an outreach and education grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Marine Debris Program in the summer of 2016. As a recipient of this grant, it’s our goal to:

  • Educate the public about marine debris and its effects on the environment.
  • Remove marine debris and cigarette butts from Maui’s coastline.
  • Inform people on Maui’s tobacco free beaches and parks bill; it is illegal to smoke on any of Maui County’s parks, beaches and recreational areas.

Since awarded this grant, our Research and Conservation staff have provided outreach and education about this important topic to 310,920 members of the public and 17,603 keiki. We have also hosted several educational events such as Ocean Camp, where Maui keiki get hands-on experience with a certified Marine Naturalist, and hosting the Maui screening of the documentary A Plastic Ocean at the historic Iao Theatre to raise awareness about single-use plastics.

We also have an outreach station located at popular Ulua Beach, where beachgoers can talk to our onsite Naturalist about marine debris, tobacco use, or general ocean health. By personally bringing the information to the public, we hope to raise awareness and encourage a change in behavior when it comes to marine debris.

Through various clean-up events and ongoing research projects, the Research Team has collected 53,392 pieces of debris since 2013, of which 21,468 were cigarette butts! At the Get the Drift and Bag it! harbor clean up on International Coastal Clean-Up day, volunteers picked up 15,356 cigarette butts. With a recently announced extension to this grant, Pacific Whale Foundation will continue educating the public on marine debris and cleaning our coastlines through January 2018.

 

Nala the Famous Humpback Whale

One very special humpback whale and her calf made the news this whalewatch season, and it isn’t the first time. Not only is Nala a celebrity in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community and a frequent visitor to the area, she is also a long-time mother and a real-life example of how our research at Pacific Whale Foundation is making a difference.

Ask anyone in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community who Nala is, and almost anyone will have  heard of the famous whale. Her name was given to her in 1996 by a group of students at Hervey Bay High school who, going along with a Lion King theme, named her calf that year Simba. She has since been dubbed the “icon” whale of Hervey Bay and over the years, Nala has earned the respect and admiration of many.

Continue reading