Help Protect Maui’s Coral Reefs and Manta Rays

Maui truly is blessed in being surrounded by an underwater wonderland. In addition to hosting one of the largest concentrations of humpback whales during their birthing season in the world, we are also lucky to have the chance to see other graceful, unique denizens of the deep, such as monk seals, several species of sharks and even manta rays.

Maui is one of a few places in the entire world with a resident population of manta rays. Olowalu Reef, off of West Maui, is home to an estimated 350 resident reef manta rays. In nearshore reef locations, manta rays congregate around “cleaning stations”, where Hawaiian cleaner wrasse eat parasites of  the skin of a manta ray. Manta rays are also thought to breed in the shallow coral reef habitat.

Unfortunately, both species of manta ray (Manta birostris and Manta alfredi) are currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Manta rays are hunted in some countries for their skin, their fins (for the shark fin soup trade) and for their gill rakers, which are used in some Chinese medicines. Since manta rays mature slowly and have few pups, they are especially susceptible to fishing pressures. Manta rays around Maui have also been spotted entangled in fishing line and some have even lost part of their fins due to this marine debris. Learn more from HAMER.

To raise awareness, Pacific Whale Foundation has just launched a seasonal conservation campaign to take action and help protect the coral reefs of Maui that resident manta rays depend on.

On Maui, proposed shoreline development near the Olowalu area would cause increased runoff, which would smother coral polyps. Encourage sustainable development and responsible environmental policies by supporting conservation minded local officials, no matter where you live. Be sure to clean up and recycle monofilament fishing lines with Pacific Whale Foundation’s fishing line recycling program. Much is still to be learned about manta ray populations, migrations, habitat use, and behavior. Help add to knowledge of these animals by donating any “belly shots”, with sighting location and date, to Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research for mantas in Maui, or to Manta Trust, for mantas spotted in other parts of the world.  Good luck spotting these amazing ambassadors of the reefs!

Ocean Spirit Voyage Update

Ocean Spirit made it through the Panama Canal successfully, current location is just north of Costa Rica (see map below) this GPS location was received early yesterday morning.

Crew member Christy Kozama shares with us her experience crossing the Panama Canal.

Aloha,

We are in Playa Papagayo Marina, Costa Rica. We arrived at daybreak as the sun spilled over the verdant cliffs surrounding the marina. We are currently still sitting on the boat, 6 hours later, waiting for a custom’s officer to clear us into the country. We’ll only spend a day here, enough time to fill our tanks and barrels with diesel, our water tanks with water, wash our laundry, and make a quick shopping trip for fresh produce to last us to Cabo.

Continue reading

Pacific Whale Foundation Hosts Annual “Be Whale Aware” Lecture

Each winter, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawai’i to mate and give birth.  In Hawai’i, humpback whales are engaged in important social and behavioral activities. Approaching whales  too close or fast may disrupt these behaviors and cause unnecessary stress to the animals.

In order to promote responsible whalewatching, Pacific Whale Foundation developed the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines. These guidelines build on current federal and state regulations, as well as scientific research.

Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation’s founder and Executive Director, annually hosts a public “Be Whale Aware” training program. The training is utilized as a way to share best practices that Pacific Whale Foundation has developed during three decades of whalewatching around Maui. As part of the November Making Waves lecture series, Kaufman presented the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines and results from Pacific Whale Foundation’s current humpback whale research.

Studies have shown that ship speed and size are major factors when it comes to ship strikes.  A vessel traveling over 15 knots, for example, has an 80% chance of causing lethal injuries if it hits a whale. At speeds below 11.8 knots, the chances of a lethal injury drop below 50% (Vanderlaan & Taggart, 2007).

Pacific Whale Foundation’s “Researcher on Board” study in 2011 recorded a total of 2,464 humpback whale sightings. Of those sightings, 133 (3%) were surprise encounters. Findings from the study support the theory that vessel speed is important in avoiding collisions with whales. Pacific Whale Foundation recommends that all vessels travel no faster than 15 knots in Maui County waters during whale season.

The “Be Whale Aware” guidelines also suggest not approach whales directly from the front or behind, limiting viewing time with mom’s and calves to 30 minutes, and not having more than three vessels watching a whale at one time.  Download a copy of the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines.

All ocean users are reminded that federal law prohibits approaching whales closer than 100 yards.

Pacific Whale Foundation has equipped its catamarans with Whale Protection Devices to guide whales away from propellers and running gear. Each Pacific Whale Foundation vessel is also required to post a red and yellow flag when the vessel is actively watching whales. The flag helps alert other boaters to slow down because whales are in the area.

This year, Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team will be working aboard the dedicated research vessel Ocean Protector to continue ongoing research to document humpback whales in the Maui region. Kaufman discussed that the study focuses on identifying ‘hot spots’ where it’s especially important for vessels to keep a watchful eye for whales and maintain reduced speeds.

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers will be photo-identifying individual whales and collecting data on age classes, gender (when apparent), pod compositions and group sizes of the whales encountered. Kaufman highlighted the importance of understanding which whales — males, females, calves, older whales — are likely to surface unexpectedly around boats. Knowing the answer to these questions will help greatly reduce the threat of ship-strikes in Maui County waters.

References sited:

Vanderlaan, A.S., & Taggart, C.T. (2007). Vessel collisions with whales: the probability of lethal injury based on speed. Marine Mammal Science, 23(1), 144-156.

FACT OF THE WEEK: Hawaii’s State Mammal is Critically Endangered

MORE ON THIS: To native Hawaiians, this furry creature may be referred to as ‘llioholoikauaua, but you personally know them as Hawaiian monk seals. These monk seals are endemic, meaning they are only found in Hawai‘i. They are one of the most endangered animals in the world, with their population of about 1,100 still declining.

These marine mammals are semiaquatic, spending most of their time at sea and some of their time on land.  “Hauling out” is a process where the seal goes onto the beaches to sleep, nurse, molt and rest. Here, a mother will nurse her pup for about 6 weeks and then the roughly 200-pound pup will have to fend for itself. An adult will grow from 6 to 7.5 feet in length and will weight between 375 to 600 pounds. They are generalist feeders, feeding on what is readily available, such as squid, eel, octopi, fish, and crustaceans.

There are many dangers that threaten the life of a monk seal. Food limitations, marine debris entanglement, falling victim to bycatch, mother-pup disturbances and illegal sealing (killing) are some of the anthropogenic, or human-caused, threats to these mammals. Disease outbreaks, predators and low genetic diversity are some of the natural threats that can harm them.  However, overfishing, littering, utilizing harmful fishery equipment, and harassing or killing seals are all very crucial things that humans can cease doing to promote population growth. Natural disturbances may not be able to be avoided, but humans can learn to live in harmony with these animals.

What we can do to help is:

  • give the seals lots of space when hauled out or in the water
  • follow fishing guidelines and restrictions
  • pick up litter
  • report stranded or entangled seals to the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Hotline at 1-888-256-9840
  • report harassment to NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at 1-888-853-1964
  • report ALL sightings of monk seals on Maui to (808) 292-2372

Many foundations around the island may also have volunteer opportunities for the public. Educating the public around hauled out seals and helping with population counts can benefit them immensely.  Even you can help the monk seal!

FURTHER READING:

  1. Hawai‘i Wildlife Watching Guide: Hawaiian Monk Seal. Pacific Whale Foundation. 2010. http://www.pacificwhale.org/sites/pacificwhale.org/files/Monk-Seal-Guide.pdf
  2. Protected Resources Division. NOAA. 2010. http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_hms_population_threats.html
  3. Hawaiian Monk Seal. National Geographic. n.d. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/hawaiian-monk-seal
  4. Who’s Killing Hawaii’s Monk Seals? Huffington Post. 2013. Nathan Eagle & Sophie Cook. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/06/killing-monk-seals_n_4399723.html

Written by Melissa Freese

2014 Australian whale season completed

While Halloween was celebrated in the Northern America, the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) research team stationed in Australia had their last day in the field in Eden, New South Wales. The day was made even more special by the presence of the replica of the HMS Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel that Lieutenant James Cook commanded on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand from 1769 to 1771.

After spending 9 weeks in Hervey Bay, a reduced team (myself and Tizoc Garcia) drove the 1,700 km (1,055 miles) south to Eden for an additional 3 weeks to collect more data on the humpback whales as they migrate south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. It was with great pleasure that we met up again with the Cat Balou owners, Rosalind and Gordon Butt and their crew, who have been supporting the PWF research team for decades.

Eden is a beautiful place, with a wild coastline and rich marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, and many bird species.

It is also colder than Hervey Bay, especially when the south-easterly or south-westerly winds start to blow. A few extra layers of clothing were often required.

Overall, the research team had a very successful whale season, covering just over 5,500 miles, the equivalent of the distance between Quebec City in Canada and Santiago in Chile!

The team spent 514 hours on the water and managed to take 332 flukes photo for photo-identification purposes. Each of these photo received a within season ID. Photos that will meet the quality criteria will then be matched with the PWF Australian photo-id catalog that contains more than 6,000 individuals. When comparing the within season photo-ids between Hervey Bay and Eden, 6 matches were made, indicating that humpback whales did the journey south between 20 (adult) and 35 days (mother-calf pairs).

The team also recorded just over 150 sightings of dolphins, mainly bottlenose dolphins in Hervey Bay and common dolphins in Eden. Bottlenose dolphins were present in both locations.

The 2014 whale season was quite different from the 2013 season. While it is challenging to compare data collected in Hervey Bay as two different platforms were used to collect data (research vessel vs tour boats), it was more obvious in Eden that less whales were encountered this season, including mother-calf pairs. As a testament to this, we often had to travel further to find the whales. This observation appears to be supported by other colleagues along the humpback whale migration route. To be sure, the team will analyze the data over the next few months.

Such fluctuation in numbers could be part of a natural phenomenon. In Maui, thanks to the annual Great Whale Count organized by PWF, a 4-year cycle in the proportion of whale sighted has become apparent over the years. According to PWF founder and president, Greg Kaufman, “This is likely a result of mature females being in sync on their calving cycles coupled with the general overall rate of whale population increase.”

We are looking forward to the 2015 whale season in Australia and seeing what it would bring. In the meantime, the Maui team is getting ready for their upcoming whale season in the field (December-April).

PWF research team is very grateful to the owners and crew of Shayla, Blue Dolphin, and Amaroo in Hervey Bay and of Cat Balou in Eden for their support over the past three months, by welcoming us on their whale-watching vessel to collect opportunistic data. As we say in Hawai`i “mahalo nui loa” (thank you very much) and “a hui hou kākou” (until we meet again).

Ocean Spirit Underway

Ocean Spirit departed from St. Croixn USVI on November 5th and arrived Colon, Panama November 9th.

Eco Team member Sierra Frye-Keele writes: “After 96 hours of motoring (only 1.5 hours were spent with sails up due to light wind), we’ve made it to Panama! Ocean Spirit is a safe and sea worthy vessel, very comfortable for travel. We ate well, slept well, and encountered only one crazy lightning storm.”

“Seas were pretty calm the entire way, little to no wind, and a bit of rain here and there. It’s pouring now in Panama, and we have a few days to wait before our clearance to cross the Canal. We’re in a nice marina (Shelter Bay), with a pool, luke warm jacuzzi and showers, great restaurant, and spotty Internet access. All is well:) ”

We will be keeping track as they continue their journey crossing through the Panama Canal and up along the pacific coast off Mexico and then across a long stretch towards Hawaii.