It’s a match!

As you probably know, the underside of a humpback whale’s tail, or flukes, is the main characteristic used by scientists to identify individuals. In addition, a whale’s dorsal fin can also be used to distinguish individuals and/or help confirm a match. This is why, whenever possible, the research team aims at taking a photo-ID of the flukes as well as the left and right dorsal fins of each individual within a pod.

Collage different fluke shapes II

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

Dorsal fins vary in shape and form. Some are round, squared, pointy, even very hooked, which with a little bit of imagination, almost look like a witch’s nose. In some cases a dorsal fin might be scarred, for example from a propeller or fishing line, or even missing. Patterns and coloration of the skin on the body are also unique. So much that, occasionally, the conspicuous shape of the dorsal fin and/or the body patterns of an individual will attract your eye and stick in your memory. In those instances, you find yourself giving that particular individual a name that characterizes that special feature.

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PWF Awarded Sustainable Tourism Certification

Since its inception 35 years ago, Pacific Whale Foundation has remained committed to not only educating the public about the ocean environment, but also ensuring that our operations are as environmentally friendly as possible. We work to reduce our overall environmental impact, and have been an industry leader when it comes to practices like pumping, and not dumping, waste, replacing styrofoam containers with compostable products and mooring our vessels at snorkel sites instead of dropping anchor on reefs.

Pacific Whale Foundation guests and crew work together to remove a large net from the ocean during an Eco-Adventure

Pacific Whale Foundation guests and crew work together to remove a large net from the ocean during an Eco-Adventure

A main component of Pacific Whale Foundation trips is also inspiring passengers to take an active role in protecting our oceans – be it through making lifestyle changes or joining one of our many ocean advocacy campaigns.

We are excited to announce that the education and sustainability standards set by Pacific Whale Foundation, and other eco-tour companies throughout Hawai’i, are being officially promoted through the Hawai’i Ecotourism Association’s newly revamped “Sustainable Tourism Certification Program”. Formed in 1994, the Hawai’i Ecotourism Association (HEA) is a nonprofit organization that advocates for ecotourism as a means to protect Hawai’i’s natural environment and native cultures.

HEA Certification Logo Blue CERTIFIED Dates

Ecotours that receive the Sustainable Tourism Certification must meet specific criteria, including:

  • Provide a direct, personal experience of nature for customers;
  • Employ environmentally sustainable practices to ensure that their activities do not degrade the environment;
  • Maintain a written Sustainability Commitment Statement that guides operations and demonstrates a commitment to HEA Sustainable Tourism principles;
  • Make ongoing, positive contributions to the community annually, both economically and in contributing to local conservation initiatives;
  • Provide accurate interpretation of resources to guests during tour and ensure that staff are qualified and appropriately trained.

Pacific Whale Foundation is one of only five tour operators on Maui to receive the Sustainable Tourism Certification for the 2014-2016 cycle. We are a proud member of the Hawai’i Ecotourism Association and look forward to promoting the values of sustainability throughout Hawai’i’s tourism industry.

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.

FACT OF THE WEEK: The Name Game

FACT OF THE WEEK: Bottlenose dolphins may address each other by name!

MORE ON THIS: Recent research has suggested that bottlenose dolphins have individually unique signature whistles that are equivalent to human names. During the first few months of life, a dolphin will develop its own signature whistle made up of a series of sounds and notes. Dolphins will also adopt the signature whistle of other dolphins in the pod to identify and communicate with different individuals, specifically close associates or those with strong social bonds. When a dolphin emits its own signature whistle, a  dolphin that is a close associate will reply with a copied version of the whistle with a few subtle alterations that differentiates the signature whistle from the copied whistle. This allows the second dolphin to relay information back to the first dolphin; the alterations to the whistle may also give information about who the second dolphin is.

Signature whistles httpwww.cell.comcmsattachment20079513612030487757gr2.jpg

Image from: Janik, V.M. 2013. Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4): 157 – 159.

Many species of dolphins live in fission-fusion societies, this means that the size and composition of the pod will change as time passes. When pods merge together, vocal signatures are exchanged in order to learn about the identities of individual members of the new pod. These exchanges are generally repeated several times during the interaction to either improve the probability of correct identification, or provide additional information with each exchange.

FURTHER READING:

Written by Patrice Hostetter

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

FACT OF THE WEEK: Whale Tale

FACT OF THE WEEK: The underside of a whale’s tail, called the flukes, is not the only characteristic that can be used to photo-identify baleen whales.

MORE ON THIS: You may already know that humpback whales have individually unique tail flukes, like a human fingerprint, and can be identified by photographing these. In addition, each humpback whale also has a unique dorsal fin that allows researchers to track and study individual whales using photo-identification techniques. But did you know that other species of baleen whales are identified using other body parts?

humpback whale fluke (PWF-Hawaii 2013)

Humpback whale flukes. Photographed under NOAA permit # 16479.

Gray whales don’t actually have a dorsal fin; instead they have a series of “knuckles” along their back. Researchers can use the shape of these knuckles, as well as mottling, scarring, and barnacle patterns on the whale’s back to identify individuals.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge - front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge – front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Minke whales are identified using nicks or notches in their dorsal fins, or by unusual dorsal fin shape, similar to photo-identification in dolphins. They can also be identified on the basis of lateral body pigmentation.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

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