Are the whales jumping for joy in Hervey Bay?

Breaching, or jumping out of the water, is a behavior that the PWF researchers in Hervey Bay and in Maui observe frequently. A commonly asked question is “Why do whales breach”? The short answer is that no one knows a single cause for this behavior; however, there are a number of theories about what drives such impressive whale acrobatics.

One possibility is that the whales breach just for fun, similar to humans and other terrestrial mammals when they are excited or playing. Another option is that they use breaching and other surface activity as a way of communicating to other whales. If you’ve ever been close to a breaching whale, you know that the sound is astonishing. The sound is also quite loud underwater and may be used to communicate the whale’s location or activity level to other whales in the distance. It has also been suggested that whales breach to deter predators or other perceived threats.

Young calves may have a completely separate motivation for breaching. As more mother and calf pairs enter Hervey Bay, researchers and whalewatch passengers alike can’t help but to notice the awkward jumps of young calves. These calves are trying to imitate what the larger whales are doing with mixed success. Breaching calves are entertaining to watch, but there has been recent research suggesting that through repeated breaching, humpback whale calves increase the amount of myoglobin in their muscles. Myoglobin is a protein that binds iron and oxygen, and high concentrations of myoglobin can improve the diving ability of marine mammals.

There are a variety of possible explanations for why whales breach, but it is most likely that whales do not breach for any single reason, but rather do this behavior for a number of reasons that serve different functions throughout the seasons and over the course of their lives.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

Paddle Out For The Whales makes a splash in Australia

As part of the Hervey Bay Oceans Festival, our researchers had the opportunity to be involved in Paddle Out for the Whales–an event to help raise awareness of the threats whales face today. 

The event involved paddling out on a craft of your choice (SUP, kayak, inflatable raft, or handmade) to observe a minute of silence acknowledging the importance of whales and the ocean to Hervey Bay. Before the paddle out began, a live Zumba session got the paddlers loose and limber. One of our research volunteers, Jaimi, paddled out by kayak to participate in the event while Research Assistant Jessica remained on land to give an informative talk about PWF’s research in Hervey Bay. A PWF booth was present at the event to sell items from our Australia-based gift shop, as well as engage with community members about the research in Australia.  The event also featured live music, sandcastle building, and construction of a 6-foot papier mache whale.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

FACT OF THE WEEK: False Killer Whales Call Hawaii Home

MORE ON THIS: False killer whales, while a globally distributed species, have a special tie to Maui and the four-island region. Recent research has found that a very small group of this odontocete, or toothed whale species,  calls Hawaiian waters home, making them genetically different from offshore groups. This makes this population especially interesting because false killer whales are generally thought to prefer deep ocean environments far from any land.

Genetic tests were completed on samples collected from groups of false killer whales around the main Hawaiian islands and locations throughout the North Pacific. Researchers found samples collected from individual whales close to the Islands were most genetically unique when compared to samples from whales in the Pacific Ocean, Panama and Mexico. The uniqueness of the samples indicates there are two separate populations; an inshore population and an offshore population.

Their acrobatic displays and tendencies to bow ride make false killer whales hard to miss if you are lucky enough to see one. Hawaii insular population numbers are predicted to be as low as 123 individuals, with only 46 capable of breeding. There is good news though. The insular false killer whale population was classified as an Endangered Species in 2012, meaning this population now has extra protection. Keep your eyes open. If you’re lucky you will see one of Hawaii’s very own false killer whales.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Protecting Hawaii’s False Killer Whale. Pacific Whale Foundation. Accessed October 8, 2015
  2. Baird, R. (2009). A review of false killer whales in Hawaiian waters: biology, status, and risk factors. US Marine Mammal Commission: 1-40.
  3. Chivers et al. (2009). Genetic Variation and Evidence for population structure in eastern North Pacific false killer whales. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 85: 783-94.

Written by Chelsea Brown

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

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

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