Whale-sized Fun for Maui Children at Sea!

As a part of our education efforts, every whale season we host numerous school groups participating in our Keiki (Hawaiian for “children”) Whalewatch program. Last week we concluded this season’s program with 1,518 children now having more knowledge about humpback whales.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Keiki Whalewatch program is offered to create an impactful and interactive learning experience for our future generation. It is evident that many children who attend our program have yet to observe a humpback whale. After greeting the children, educators often ask the group, “who has never seen a whale?” Each time, several mini hands launch towards the sky in eager anticipation of the near adventure that will soon change that response. Designed so that children preschool through high school can experience these majestic animals in their natural habitat, Keiki Whalewatches allow children to connect with our marine environment, and for many, to see a whale for the very first time.

Exclusively available to schoolchildren and their teachers and chaperones, participants enjoy a unique 75 minute whalewatch complimented by a playful presentation in our Discovery Center classrooms. Each program is specific to their grade level and offered at a heavily reduced rate. Schools are also invited to apply for additional scholarship support through our No Child Left Indoors (NCLI) program. This year, four schools benefited from the NCLI program receiving a total of $1,159 in scholarship support to subsidize some of the field trip costs.

We want to thank all of our Members, volunteers, staff, and other supporters who help make it possible for the children to experience this fun and fact-filled, learning excursion. We also extend great appreciation to the schools who work hard to give their children these extraordinary educational experiences. Mahalo to Kamehameha Schools, Paia School, Kamaliʻi Elementary, Lokelani Intermediate, Wailuku Union  Preschool, Makawao B Headstart, Smart Start Christian School, Haiku Elementary, Peaceful Parent Happy Child, Kihei Elementary, Waiheʻe Elementary, Kula Elementary, Saint Anthony School, Waiheʻe Elementary, Children’s Garden Preschool, Christian Homeschool Co-op, Storybook School, Montessori of Maui, Wailuku Elementary, Princess Nahienaena Elementary, Lihikai Elementary, as well as our local home school groups.

Whale done, everyone! We had a great time and look forward to “sea-ing” you next year.

 

Underwater footage of humpback whales reveals penis extrusion

The research team was enjoying a lunch break on the water after completing a morning of transect surveys, when we noticed a nearby competition pod. We realized that the whales were headed towards us and decided to put our GoPro camera in the water to document the behavior. To our amazement, we had filmed something we never expected to see – one of the whales was swimming with its penis out!

A humpback whale penis can be up to 10 feet long and is normally concealed inside the animal’s genital slit. Seeing the penis extrude from this slit is a rare sight, which is why we were so astonished and pleased about the footage.

What is a “competition pod” or “comp pod”? If you have been on a whalewatch you may have heard this term before. It is something commonly witnessed in the humpback whale breeding grounds, such as Hawai`i.

A competition pod is defined as a group of surface-active whales, which consists of one adult female that is being pursued by a group of males. The number of whales in a comp pod varies, from as few as 3 to very large pods with 20 or more animals. The pod composition is always changing; some whales will leave and others will join. The relative position of the whales within the pod can also change. The males become quite aggressive with each other as they try to gain the position closest to the female and become what is called the “primary escort”.

Humpback whale with raw tubercles on head from competing with other whales

Humpback whale with red, raw tubercles on head

These competitions can be violent, and it is not uncommon to see blood on the whales as the tubercles on their head become rubbed raw in the heat of the battle. Behaviors often observed are head lunges, peduncle throwing, bubble blowing, jaw clapping, trumpeting and, of course, lots of splashing and blowing. Whales generally do not breach in a competition pod.

So, why do they do this? Well the reason is reproduction; the males are hoping that the female in the group will be receptive to mating.

As you can see in the video, the animal is swimming towards another whale with the penis clearly visible. It is not known if the whale being approached is a male or female, and research indicates that males can direct a penis extrusion toward either gender. It is not clear what function this behavior serves in a competition pod; but we are very glad to share our footage with you.

Footage collected under NMFS permit #16479

FACT OF THE WEEK: Bio-Fluorescent Coral Flaunts Underwater Light Show

MORE ON THIS: It is easy to see the beauty of coral reefs when snorkeling or diving during the day, but have you ever seen the colors of coral at night?

Coral reefs are known to put on a light show known as bio-fluorescence.  A family of proteins provides this fluorescence by absorbing one color and emitting another.  Each protein provides a different color; the most common is the green fluorescent protein known as GFP.  When the wavelengths of color are absorbed then re-emitted, some of the energy is lost.  This changes the wavelength, which determines the color.

Species of coral known to give off this fluorescence are found in Hawai‘i and can be seen on night dives with special dive lights.  If you’re interested in seeing this phenomenon, you can contact your local dive shop to ask about night diving to see fluorescent coral or, if you’d like to stay dry, you can visit the Maui Ocean Center which has some of this coral on exhibit.

It is unknown why fluorescence occurs, but there are speculations from scientists.  Some believe that it acts as a sunscreen for the coral.  Researchers also have proposed that the fluorescence creates light to allow algae to grow in deeper water; algae is the major food source of most corals.

Research is focusing on coral fluorescence for several reasons.  The first reason is due to the fragile state of coral reefs in our climate-changing world.  Some studies suggest that the intensity of the fluorescence can be a sign that the coral is under stress and may indicate that the coral is about to bleach.

Medical research is also greatly benefiting from coral fluorescence research.  The same proteins the corals use to fluoresce are being used to help monitor biological processes within diseases to further understand how they work. This is done by using the fluorescence as a marker so scientists can watch cells divide or viruses spread.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Roach, John. 2005. “Glowing Coral Proteins Aid Medical Research.” National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0112_050112_coralproteins.html
  2. Roth,  Melissa S., Fran, Tung-Yung, Deheyen, Dimitri D. 2013. “Life History Changes in Coral Fluorescence and the Effects of Light Intensity on Larval Physiology and Settelement in Seriatopora hystrix.” Plos One. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0059476
  3. University of California – San Diego. 2013. “Fluorescent light revealed as gauge of coral health: Mysterious glow of light found to correlate with coral stress prior to bleaching.” Science Daily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130312092918.htm.

Written by Sarah Mousel

Promising partnership in Guatemala

Whalewatching continues to grow globally with new markets emerging. Guatemala is the latest country seeking to develop whale watch operations off its Pacific coast focusing on the annual migration of humpback whales that migrate through their waters December through June. The humpbacks are thought to be en route to/from their breeding and calving grounds off Costa Rica, and likely spend their summer months feeding near central California northward to BC, Canada.

Greg Kaufman, founder of Pacific Whale Foundation recently traveled to the small coastal community of Montericco, Guatemala — best known for its 20km- long nature reserve of coast and coastal mangrove wetlands — to speak with tour operators about whalewatching and learn first-hand their challenges and whale observations.

The department of tourism, INGUAT, reached out to Kaufman for advice on this new developing industry. They stressed the importance of wanting to take a scientific approach to cultivate sustainable tourism in the area. Kaufman shared his thoughts on regulation and responsible practices.

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