Preparing for a long journey home

Ocean Spirit looked elegant and vibrant like a racehorse ready to go, as crew members tend to last minute tests and system checks. Five crew members will set sail on a 5880.85 mile journey, from St. Croix, USVI to Maui, HI. Ocean Spirit, will be the ninth vessel of Pacific Whale Foundation’s eco fleet.

PWF’s Founder Greg Kaufman, joined our Eco Team on sea trials from Salt River Bay, St. Croix. Sails were drawn and she proved to be strong as well as fast, reaching a top speed of 21.9 knots! Final preparations will continue this week for scheduled departure on November 1, weather permitting. Stay tuned as will will report and track Ocean Spirit’s journey along the way.

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.

Less than 30 minutes later we spotted another dorsal fin, only this one was much larger than the other species. Could it be? A quick confirmation with binoculars told us that, yes, we had a pod of short-finned pilot whales right in front of us. The pod was milling at the surface and spyhopping to check us out. Once again we photographed them for our photo-ID catalog and collected behavioral data as per our protocol. This time we stayed the maximum 60 minutes, and then we had to leave and return to complete the transect line.

Later that month we cataloged the photographs taken that day and realized that not one of the pilot whales photographed that day was a match to our catalog.  This most likely means that this pod was an entirely new sighting for us; we have never photographed them before. We added 22 new individuals to our catalog; 0 were re-sights. Of the false killer whales photographed, 10 were new individuals to our catalog and 3 were re-sights.

It was really a very special day for all of us on board the Ocean Protector. We consider ourselves very lucky if we see one of these species and to see them both in a single day was so amazing.

Here is a map to show you where the research department has sighted these two species over the past few years:

Sightings Map Of False Killer Whales and Short-Finned Pilot Whales

Hawksbill turtle hatchling. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

FACT OF THE WEEK: Hawksbill turtles are nesting on Maui

MORE ON THIS: In Hawai‘i, Hawksbill turtles mostly nest on Hawai‘i Island, but Maui is home to some of the nesting beaches for ten of these turtles.  Beginning around age 20, a female will return to the area where she was born between May and October every 3 to 9 years to lay her eggs.  Hawksbills will nest at night and will lay 2-5 sets of eggs, or clutches, in the same season. Each clutch will be laid approximately 16-23 days apart.  To lay eggs, the turtle will haul out onto a beach to find a suitable area, dig a deep pit using her flippers, and then fill the pit with her eggs.  A single clutch averages 180 eggs.  Once she is done laying her eggs, she will use her flippers to fill the hole in with sand before returning to the sea.

After approximately 60 days, the eggs will hatch and tiny turtles will begin racing towards the sea.  This is one of the most dangerous times in their life and many don’t make it, except for on Maui where Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund closely monitors each nest to ensure each hatchling crawls to the ocean safely.  A variety of larger animals such as crabs or birds will prey on the small turtles as they make their way to the water.  Hawksbill turtles are listed as endangered throughout the world, including in Hawai‘i, largely in part because of humans.  They have been exploited for many years for tortoise shell, which is thought to make beautiful décor.  Other threats include habitat loss from coastal development, marine debris, being caught as fishing by-catch and light pollution.

Adult Hawksbill Turtle. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Adult Hawksbill Turtle. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

What is being done to help these turtles?  Organizations such as Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, NOAA, and US Fish and Wildlife Service have built turtle fences to prevent turtles from crossing roads, and created annual nesting and hatching patrols.  They are also working with local home owners, businesses and resorts to reduce coastal lighting that may prevent turtles from nesting on beaches and/or confuse hatching turtles and cause them to head inland instead of out towards the sea.  With these efforts, hawksbill turtle populations will hopefully be on the rise.

Sea turtles are protected under state law and the US endangered species act. It is illegal to harass, kill or capture a sea turtle. If you ever spot a hawksbill on the beach, take a photo of one while swimming, or would like to be a volunteer to help with nesting and hatching patrols, please contact Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund at (808)280-8124 or wild@aloha.net

FURTHER READING:

  1. Hawai‘i Wildlife Watching Guide: Sea turtles. 2010. Pacific Whale Foundation. Available online: http://www.pacificwhale.org/sites/pacificwhale.org/files/Sea-Turtles-Guide.pdf
  2. Hawksbill Sea Turtle. 2014. Florida: US Fish and Wildlife Service. Available online: http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/seaturtles/turtle%20factsheets/hawksbill-sea-turtle.htm
  3. Hawaiian Hawksbill Sea Turtles. N.D. NOAA-NMFS and Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. Available online: http://wildhawaii.org/documents/hawaiian_hawksbill_brochure.pdf

Written by Sarah Mousel

Mother-calf pairs in Hervey Bay

There has been a change in the size and composition of humpback whale groups sighted within Hervey Bay as the season progresses. In the first weeks of August, yearlings (one-year old whales) and sub-adults (immature individuals of both gender) were mainly found in the bay. This is the time where you are more likely to be mugged by whales. By late August, mature females come in the area, followed by mature males and their songs can be heard throughout the bay. In mid-to-late season, i.e. September to October, the majority of groups sighted are mother-calf pairs as they tend to be the last groups to migrate south to the Antarctic feeding grounds.

Hervey Bay is a shallow and protected bay in Australia, which provides an ideal temporary stop-over for mother humpback whales to care for their offspring during the southern migration. Using photo-identification, we know that some mother-calf pairs may stay more than a week within the bay.

Mother-calf pairs have the strongest and more lasting bond within humpback whales. The calf will stay with its mother for about a year until it is weaned. During that time, it will feed on a fat rich milk to put on weight very quickly and be able to migrate to the feeding grounds with its mother.

As in many mammal species, calves can be full of energy, performing many surface activities, such as breaching, while their mother is travelling slowly or even resting at the surface, which is often referred as “logging” given that from a distance a whale can look like a floating log at the surface. When calves are very active to the delight of passengers and researchers alike, one question often comes to mind: “where do they get all that energy?”

During their stop-over in the bay, calves also get more opportunities to learn how to behave by mimicking their mother’s actions, like “pec slapping” and breaching for example. Both mother and calf may participate at the same time, making it a priceless photo if you get the shot.

Being able to observe whales in their natural habitat, especially mother-calf pair interactions, is a real privilege. I am always in awe to witness such a strong bond and how gentle mothers can be toward their calves despite their size. They touch one another with their flippers and at times you may be lucky enough to observe a calf swimming on top of its mother’s head and being gently lifted by her rostrum (upper jaw or snout).

Calves swim very closely to their mothers, especially in the early stages of their life, for protection from predators such as killer whales. Whales that were attacked by killer whales and survived often bear distinctive “rake” marks on their flukes.

Some mothers appear more protective of their calves, staying away from a vessel. Others, on the other hand, are more relaxed and will approach a vessel with their calves.

Mothers are also very protective of their calves in the presence of one or several escorts, often swimming between her calf and escort(s), as she may be harassed by the escort exhibiting vigorous and aggressive behavior such as head lunges. If more than one escort is present, the individual defending the position closest to the female is often referred to as the “primary escort” and the others as “secondary escorts.”

After a stop-over in Hervey Bay, mother-calf pairs with or without escort(s) will continue their south migration to Antarctica. Mothers will look after their calves for almost a year. At that point in time, the calves now called “yearlings”, will become independent while on the feeding grounds or in route to the breeding grounds. Some may even accompany their mothers back to the breeding grounds. Once there, they would have completed their first round migration, one of many to come throughout their lifetime.