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.

 

Ocean Play, the Sustainable Way – the Importance of Using Reef-Safe Sunscreen

The chance to explore the warm, bright blue waters and vibrant coral reefs of Maui is one of the biggest draws for visitors to our island paradise. It’s nothing short of magical to watch colorful reef fish dart amongst the coral heads beneath you while graceful, lumbering green sea turtles meander slowly up from the sea floor to take their gulps of air. When you’re lucky enough to be frolicking in the ocean here, whether you’re snorkeling, diving, surfing, beach-combing, swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, or simply floating on your back and watching the world go by, you’re in one of the most relaxing places on Earth. We get so much from the ocean – shouldn’t it be part of our job to make sure we’re taking care of her in return?

Sunscreen, one of the first toiletries many think to pack when traveling to an island, has become a big topic of concern out here in this popular vacation spot. Naturally, sun protection is an important part of taking care of our skin, but many don’t consider that there are plenty more options apart from the typical creams, sprays, and lotions that line the shelves at convenience stores. Did you know that certain ingredients in many of the most common sunscreen brands are actually killing our coral reefs? It’s easy to forget about the products we’re slathering on our bodies when we’re excited to jump in and explore these beautiful underwater places. But oxybenzone and octinoxate are two common active ingredients in sunscreen that can dramatically harm the tiny animals that make up our fragile coral reef ecosystems. Researches are finding that these chemicals can cause coral viruses, which in turn can cause bleaching and polyp death. They’ve even been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of larger marine creatures, like shrimps and clams.

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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.

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More Than Just a Whalewatch

Anyone who has seen a humpback whale and witnessed one of these animals in the wild is likely to enthusiastically share their experience. Many embark on their first whalewatch with high hopes and come back with a new appreciation for these fascinating creatures. Whalewatching is a very fun recreational activity, but it also has the potential to be an important venue for raising awareness of humpback whales and getting the public involved in protecting our oceans.

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For over 35 years, Pacific Whale Foundation has been on the forefront of researching and developing an internationally recognized model of whalewatching. Our whalewatches create enjoyable educational experiences and challenge passengers to change how they relate to the ocean. People from all different backgrounds can come together and share the excitement of encountering a humpback whale in the wild, knowing that they are playing an important role in funding research and conservation efforts that are creating lasting impacts far beyond the whalewatch itself. As the demand for eco-tourism increases, so also does the potential for turning the industry into one that is constructive and sustainable.

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Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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