Top 10 Ways To Celebrate Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to share 10 ways to engage with Mother Nature. You probably already recycle, so here are ten alternative ways to help the planet:

10. Participate in a citizen science project to help marine life.

  • Whale & Dolphin Tracker is a mobile web-application to report sightings of whales and dolphins so scientists can learn more about their patterns. You can log sightings in real-time and view them on a map or review profiles later. Visit log.pacificwhale.org to register with your smartphone.
  • Match My Whale is a web-based app to help researchers photo identify humpback whales by their flukes. Learn more and join today at www.matchmywhale.org

9. Visiting Maui? You can Volunteer on Vacation through Pacific Whale Foundation. Help clean up beach debris, remove invasive weeds, or work on other environmental projects on the island to “give back” while also creating meaningful and lasting memories of your time on Maui.

8. Help conserve Hawaii’s coral reefs. Eyes of the Reef offers free public trainings on how to report changes in the coral reef conditions in Hawaii. This helps resource managers detect the early onset of coral bleaching, disease, crown-of-thorn seastars, and outbreaks of invasive species.

7. Eat only sustainable seafood, both at home and while dining out. There are now many apps, like Seafood Watch, that will tell you what is safe to consume.

6. Get the most out of your binge-watching with our environmental documentary top picks:

  • “The 11th Hour” is Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2007 film featuring interviews with various politicians and scientists, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Stephen Hawking. It presents an interesting thesis: that human society possesses the technology to reduce our environmental impact by more than 90%.
  • “The Cove” won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010 as well as the Audience Award at Sundance. Not many films have caused as much public outcry as this expose on the fate of 23,000 of dolphins every year in Japan.
  • “An Inconvenient Truth” lit the fire of climate change awareness around the world. Originating from Al Gore’s speaking campaign after his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid, the film won two Academy Awards in 2006.
  • “Catching the Sun” captures the global race to lead the clean energy future. Premieres on Netflix April 22.

5. Do a bit of research and buy only from companies with sustainable practices. PWF Eco-Adventures prides itself on being eco-friendly and offers numerous “green features” as detailed on our website.

4. Reduce your carbon footprint by carpooling. Also, many employers, such as Pacific Whale Foundation, offer incentives for employees who ride the bus to work or who purchase ultra-high-efficiency vehicles. Contact your employer about your options.

3. Go paperless when possible. Sign up for online or mobile banking. Read the newspaper online. Use note-taking apps on your phone. Think twice about printing that email at work.

2. Cut down on plastic waste. Our marine debris surveys find that plastic is the most common source of garbage in Hawaii’s oceans. Plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of whales, dolphins and turtles. Choose reusable food and beverage containers, purchase items with less packing, and bring your own shopping bags.

1. Watch the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change signing ceremony on April 22. Find out more about Sustainable Development Goals and the need to limit global temperature rise. All sessions will be livestreamed on http://webtv.un.org

Leave us a message in the comments and let us know how you are choosing to spend your Earth Day. 

Fluke-Up Feeding in Hawaiian Waters

In the past few weeks our office has received numerous calls from concerned citizens about seeing a whale in distress.  The whale observed is spending long periods of time at the surface with its flukes extended above the water’s surface.  Some have conjectured that it is a whale using its tail flukes to sail; others have suggested it is attempting to cool down using its tail as a thermoregulatory device.

We believe a different hypothesis to be true.  The whale with the extended flukes is most likely a female humpback with a newborn calf. The mother is resting while still allowing her calf access to her mammary glands (located near the posterior portion of her body some 6-8 feet from her flukes).  By extending her tail into the air she is able to keep her body relatively close to the surface, allowing her to rest while minimizing dive depths for her young calf.  The calf is then able to nurse at will and expend less energy.

While it is rare to see a female displaying this resting/nursing posture in Hawaii, it is not without precedent.  PWF researchers have observed this feeding behavior in over three dozen female humpback whales off east Australia since 1984.  It appears to be a socially transmitted behavior: initially just a few whales employed this resting and feeding posture, and over the past 20 years we have seen a steady increase of females displaying this behavior. We refer to it as “fluke-up feeding”, or “tail-up feeding”, and once an animal employs this method, they then tend to repeat the behavior with subsequent calves.

The gestation period for humpback whales is between 10 and 12 months, and they have only one calf at a time. A whale has never been seen with two live young, but there are records from the whaling days of a pregnant whale with two fetuses. Humpback whale calves observed in Hawaii are both conceived and born in the Hawaii region. Surprisingly, there is little firsthand evidence of birthing. Scientists have observed newborn calves with their dorsal fin still folded flat against the back and fetal folds along the body. There have also been reports of a placenta being recovered while floating at the surface of the water.

A recent finding by Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit in West Australia reveals nursing occurs at an average depth of 16 feet.  Most calves nurse throughout the day, and spend 30% of their time nursing in a 24-hour period.  Although most calves nurse opportunistically throughout the day, some females only nurse their calves during the morning hours, and others nurse only at night. Humpback whales have two nipples which, when nursing, will protrude through the mammary slit. To nurse, the calf curls a specially shaped tongue around the nipple and the thick, fatty milk is reflexively squirted into the calf’s mouth. Humpback whale calves drink many gallons of milk per day, which allows them to grow quickly. Newborn humpback whales average 12-14 feet in length and weigh upward of two tons. Lactation continues for 10-11 months and once the calf has weaned, it has little contact with its mother.

There is no need to be alarmed at the sight of a whale with its tail extended for long periods of time: the animal is neither injured nor in harm’s way.  In this case it is a mother who has figured out a novel way to feed her calf while resting and conserving her energetic resources for the long journey back to the northern feeding grounds.

FACT OF THE WEEK: Hairy Humpback Whales

FACT OF THE WEEK: Humpback whales have hair!

MORE ON THIS: You probably know that whales and dolphins are marine mammals. Marine mammals, like terrestrial or land mammals, must have a certain set of characteristics to be called mammals – these include giving birth to live young and having hairs on their bodies. But where are the hairs on whales?

In fact, you have probably seen the hairs on humpback whales and not known what they were. The bumps on the rostrum, or head, and the pectoral fins of a humpback whale are, in fact, hair follicles. Called “tubercles,” these fist-sized bumps contain one hair follicle each, connected to a set of sensitive nerves. Why do humpback whales have these sensitive whiskers? There are multiple speculative theories in scientific literature, but no consensus.

Some think that tubercles serve as a sensory organ for the whale. It is thought that the single hair in each tubercle is used to detect temperature change in the water, the speed of the whale, and may even help to detect the presence of prey in the whale’s “blind spots.” Along with the idea that these tubercles serve a sensory purpose, comes an idea that tubercles assist with the hydrodynamics of the animal. It has been shown that these bumps increase lift and decrease drag in the water. Humpbacks are assumed to be one of the most acrobatic whales for their size. These tubercles may be a contributing factor for their agility.

Whale tubercles have inspired design ideas behind wind turbines, airplane wings and propellers. An energy company called WhalePower is applying tubercle-inspired bumps to numerous types of wind turbines and fans including industrial ceiling fans and computer fans to improve their efficiency, safety, and cost-effectiveness. These hairy humpback whales have inspired a new type of “greener” energy technology.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Forestell, P. H. and Kaufman, G. D. 2008. Humpbacks of Hawaiʻi: The Long Journey Back. Hawaii, USA. 216 pages.
  2. “Whalepower.” N.D. The Science.
  3. Canter, N. 2008. Humpback whales inspire new wind turbine technology.

Written by Stephanie Stack

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

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

Coral Reef Survey

Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) was recently contacted by WHALE Environmental Services LLC and asked if we were interested in a collaboration, as this Oahu-based company was planning to undertake a pilot project to survey the West Maui coral reefs. PWF was very keen to take part, and so we made arrangements to take our research vessel, Ocean Protector, out as a diving vessel for a change.

Using a standardized method, we made very short dives at 14 coral reefs along the coast of West Maui, between Ma’alaea Harbor and Honolua Bay. While scuba diving, we took note of various factors which would be used to indicate reef health, such as:

  • the number of coral species observed
  • the number of fish species observed
  • signs of pollution
  • signs of erosion
  • signs of coral disease or bleaching
  • signs of fishing pressure
  • signs of stormwater entry at the site

It was interesting to see the stark differences between a healthy reef and an unhealthy reef. This project is a baseline study – meaning that we are recording the current state of these reefs so we have a measurable starting point and can monitor the reef and detect any changes in the future. In science it is very important to record a baseline so you know when changes are happening. You then have data on how fast or slow changes are occurring, or in what locations.

While we await the results of the report that is being prepared, the research department is back to its usual summer routine of carrying out transect surveys for dolphins and marine debris.