Exciting matches in South Pacific catalog

We have been busy in the research department adding humpback whales from the 2016 Hervey Bay field season into our South Pacific humpback whale catalog. Along with adding some new animals, we have already made two matches, which is quite a feat considering that each new photo has to be checked against over 6000 others.

The two matched whales were each sighted with a calf during this field season, meaning we can confidently know that they are females. Both females have a long sighting history going back to 1993. Although we don’t know their exact ages, this sighting span means that both animals are at least 23 years old. As we continue to process the 2016 field data, we’re looking forward to making additional matches like these two in order to help us learn more about the South Pacific humpback whales.

Watching Whales from Land

Did you know that Pacific Whale Foundation studies Maui’s humpback whales from land? Using a piece of equipment called a theodolite, we observe the whales’ behavior and recreate their path of travel. You may have seen a theodolite being used on the side of the road—it sits on a tripod and is commonly used for roadwork and construction projects. It has a powerful telescope that allows our researchers to view whales up to three miles away from shore. Using this telescope, we can determine the overall behavior of the pod, how many animals are in the group, and whether there are any calves present. Once the whales come to the surface, the researcher finds them in the telescope, and the theodolite measures angles between the researcher and the whales. These measurements provide a track of the whales’ location without using more invasive methods such as placing tags on the animals.

Our survey site is atop Pu‘u Olai in the Makena region of Maui. At 360 feet high, this site provides an excellent platform for this type of survey. Land-based surveys offer a way to observe whales’ behavior without using a boat, making this method the least invasive type of whale research possible. This study is designed to examine whether whales change their behavior during or after visits from vessels. Since we are not using a vessel to observe the whales, we don’t have to worry that our own boat will change anything about the whales’ behavior. These results add to Pacific Whale Foundation’s surprise encounter study which examined factors that may lead to whale-vessel collisions. By adding the land-based study, the research team aims to determine if the presence of vessels affects the behavior of whales, which may impact the likelihood of collisions between vessels and whales.

If you’re feeling up for a bit of a hike, Pu‘u Olai is also a stunning place to view humpback whales on your own—don’t forget your binoculars!

Pod types in Hervey Bay

In an earlier post, we mentioned the recent appearance of mothers with calves in Hervey Bay. Humpback whales do not all migrate at the same time; rather, multiple group types will be predominantly seen at different points throughout the migration.

The earliest pulse of whales to arrive in Hervey Bay is sub-adult whales; meaning whales that are sexually mature but have not yet reached their full size. Sub-adults in this area seem particularly curious about the vessels, and the early portion of the season is well known for “mugging” events where the whales approach the vessel. Later in the season, mothers and calves begin to migrate through the area, and the sub-adults continue their migration toward their Antarctic feeding grounds. Mothers with calves tend to stay in the tropical breeding areas longer than the sub-adults, likely to allow the calf more time to build up its muscles and blubber layer before beginning the migration southward. The protected waters on the westward side of Fraser Island provide a safe, sheltered stopover for these mothers to rest and nurse their calves.

Nursing is commonly observed here in Hervey Bay, and occasionally the mothers exhibit an interesting “fluke up” posture while feeding their calves. This behavior is characterized by the mother sticking her tail flukes out of the water and pointing her head downwards. While the mother is stationary in this posture, the calf will dive down to nurse and then pop up to the surface repeatedly for quick breaths of air. Eventually, as with the sub-adults, the mothers and calves will leave the area to continue their migration. It is important for the mother to return to the feeding grounds to replenish her energy stores lost from nursing as well as to properly wean her calf and teach it to feed on its own.

After the bulk of the mothers and calves have left the bay, mature whales will make up the majority of the latest pods in the season. These are whales that remained in the breeding areas the longest, for example, adult males trying to ensure the best chances of mating.

There are interesting trade-offs to consider in such a large scale migration where whales travel away from their feeding grounds, and these trade-offs affect whales differently depending on their sex, age, and reproductive status.

Field season in Australia is underway

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia research program is off to a great start this year. Based out of the town of Hervey Bay, we observe the whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia, travelling south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. We have had some amazing whale encounters, and we are already starting to see mothers arriving with their calves. Our research staff and volunteers have been going out daily since mid-July to photograph the humpback whales that migrate through the region. The whales in this population mate and have their calves in the tropical areas of northeast Australia and Oceania. The bay is relatively shallow and protected by Fraser Island, offering a nice area for the whales to stop over during their long migration south.

Working from the MV Amaroo operated by the Hervey Bay Boat Club, our researchers take opportunistic identification photos of the underside of the whales’ tail flukes. Since each fluke is unique to the individual, these photos allow us to compare the fluke of each whale we see in the field with our catalog of known whales to determine the history of sightings for each animal. Additionally, the team tries to get photos of the dorsal fins and body of the animal which helps us assess overall body condition as well as any lesions or scars that may indicate injury or poor health. To learn more about our Australian research projects, visit our website. To try your hand at matching fluke photos from our South Pacific catalog, create an account and get started at Match My Whale.

 

Celebrate Endangered Species Day

Endangered Species Day is a celebration of the nation’s wildlife and wild places and is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species. Started in 2006 by the United States Congress, Endangered Species Day occurs on the 3rd Friday of May to inspire people to take action in their everyday lives to help protect endangered species.

At Pacific Whale Foundation we research two endangered species: humpback whales and false killer whales.

As with many endangered species, both humpback whales and false killer whales are endangered due to human activities. The North Pacific population of humpback whales was hunted until only a few hundred individuals remained. Although their population has recovered immensely—recent estimates suggest approximately 20,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific—they and other large whale species are still at risk of vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Our current research on humpback whales aims to reduce the risk of these collisions by determining which factors contribute to detectability of the whales.

The major threat for false killer whales is entanglement in longline fishing gear. False killer whales prey on economically important pelagic fish such as mahi and tuna. Unfortunately, this results in frequent interactions with fishing gear that lead to entanglement injuries and bycatch events. Research on false killer whales at Pacific Whale Foundation focuses on abundance, distribution and social structure, allowing us to better manage and conserve this species.

For Endangered Species Day 2016, try incorporating these actions into your daily routine:

Make purchasing choices to protect endangered species:

Opt for biodegradable packaging instead of plastics and other synthetic materials that contribute to the growing problem of persistent marine debris. Use the Seafood Watch app from Monterey Bay Aquarium to choose fish that are caught in ways that protect endangered species from threats such as entanglement and bycatch.

Visit a national wildlife refuge, park, or sanctuary:

One of the best ways to conserve endangered species is to conserve the places that they call home. National wildlife refuges, parks, and sanctuaries are often designated because they provide crucial habitat for endangered species. Whether it’s watching humpback whales within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary or trying to catch a glimpse of a manatee in Everglades National Park, visiting and supporting these protected areas goes a long way toward the conservation of these species.

Support experiences that respect wildlife and their habitats:

For your summer vacation, choose activities that respect wildlife and natural areas. Look for certified ecotourism companies with a focus on conservation and responsible management of endangered species.  For example, Pacific Whale Foundation is a certified sustainable tour operator with science, advocacy, and conservation at the core of its mission.

Adopt an Endangered Species:

Several organizations offer the opportunity to adopt different endangered species. Adoptions are a great way to support conservation efforts while getting to know the life history of individual animals. At Pacific Whale Foundation, you can adopt your very own humpback whale or false killer whale to help our researchers learn more about these species. We offer multiple levels of adoption packages, but all include an adoption certificate, sightings history, and sightings map of your whale.