Mugged on the first Ultimate Whalewatch of 2015

On January 13th, the research team ran the first Ultimate Whalewatch cruise of the 2014/2015 whale season. Mother Nature was on our side that day, with perfect calm weather conditions.

Over the past week or so, the research team had been sighting more and more humpback whales in Ma’alaea Bay, including mother-calf pairs, so our 30 guests were in for a good whalewatch trip on Ocean Liberty.

As expected, a few whale pods were sighted a few minutes into the trip. At a later stage, we were even spoiled for choice, with whales left, right and center. Captain Curtis decided to follow one of the competition pods that displayed a lot of surface activity, very close to Ma’alaea Harbor and Sugar Beach. That decision paid off.

Over time, the number of escorts dwindled down from five to just two. At one point, one of the adults, presumed to be the female in the original pod, approached the vessel so close that, when it exhaled, the blow hit a few passengers. The whale then slowly swam under the vessel, giving everyone on board enough time to admire the sheer size of this animal. What a great photo opportunity that was.

In Hawai’i, any vessel must wait until a pod is further than 100 yards before being able to move. This particular individual approached the vessel several times, repeating the same behavior, to the delight of passengers and crew. This is called mugging. Although mugging tends to be observed more in Hervey Bay, Australia, than in Maui, this season it seems that more and more vessels are getting mugged by humpback whales. Being mugged by a whale was a new and unique experience for passengers and some members of the crew. For others, over 30 minutes was a new record. No one seemed to mind that we were running late to get back to the harbor.

Let’s hope that this incredible experience is a good omen for the rest of the whale season! If you are on Maui before mid-April, please come and join us on an Ultimate Whalewatch eco-cruise.

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).

Mother-calf pairs in Hervey Bay

There has been a change in the size and composition of humpback whale groups sighted within Hervey Bay as the season progresses. In the first weeks of August, yearlings (one-year old whales) and sub-adults (immature individuals of both gender) were mainly found in the bay. This is the time where you are more likely to be mugged by whales. By late August, mature females come in the area, followed by mature males and their songs can be heard throughout the bay. In mid-to-late season, i.e. September to October, the majority of groups sighted are mother-calf pairs as they tend to be the last groups to migrate south to the Antarctic feeding grounds.

Hervey Bay is a shallow and protected bay in Australia, which provides an ideal temporary stop-over for mother humpback whales to care for their offspring during the southern migration. Using photo-identification, we know that some mother-calf pairs may stay more than a week within the bay.

Mother-calf pairs have the strongest and more lasting bond within humpback whales. The calf will stay with its mother for about a year until it is weaned. During that time, it will feed on a fat rich milk to put on weight very quickly and be able to migrate to the feeding grounds with its mother.

As in many mammal species, calves can be full of energy, performing many surface activities, such as breaching, while their mother is travelling slowly or even resting at the surface, which is often referred as “logging” given that from a distance a whale can look like a floating log at the surface. When calves are very active to the delight of passengers and researchers alike, one question often comes to mind: “where do they get all that energy?”

During their stop-over in the bay, calves also get more opportunities to learn how to behave by mimicking their mother’s actions, like “pec slapping” and breaching for example. Both mother and calf may participate at the same time, making it a priceless photo if you get the shot.

Being able to observe whales in their natural habitat, especially mother-calf pair interactions, is a real privilege. I am always in awe to witness such a strong bond and how gentle mothers can be toward their calves despite their size. They touch one another with their flippers and at times you may be lucky enough to observe a calf swimming on top of its mother’s head and being gently lifted by her rostrum (upper jaw or snout).

Calves swim very closely to their mothers, especially in the early stages of their life, for protection from predators such as killer whales. Whales that were attacked by killer whales and survived often bear distinctive “rake” marks on their flukes.

Some mothers appear more protective of their calves, staying away from a vessel. Others, on the other hand, are more relaxed and will approach a vessel with their calves.

Mothers are also very protective of their calves in the presence of one or several escorts, often swimming between her calf and escort(s), as she may be harassed by the escort exhibiting vigorous and aggressive behavior such as head lunges. If more than one escort is present, the individual defending the position closest to the female is often referred to as the “primary escort” and the others as “secondary escorts.”

After a stop-over in Hervey Bay, mother-calf pairs with or without escort(s) will continue their south migration to Antarctica. Mothers will look after their calves for almost a year. At that point in time, the calves now called “yearlings”, will become independent while on the feeding grounds or in route to the breeding grounds. Some may even accompany their mothers back to the breeding grounds. Once there, they would have completed their first round migration, one of many to come throughout their lifetime.

Mugged by whales

Every year, from July to November, humpback whales come to Hervey Bay on their southern migration. In contrast to the open coastline, where whales are in a “migration mode” to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, the bay is shallow, sheltered, and warm. It is the perfect place for the whales to aggregate, rest, and socialize. As a result, whales display a vast array of behaviors and interactions that make Hervey Bay a very unique whalewatching destination. Not surprisingly, some people refer to Hervey Bay as “Australia’s whalewatch capital.”

In addition to the most common humpback whale behaviors that can be seen in Hervey Bay, such as breaching, tail slapping, head lunging, etc., whales in Hervey Bay will often approach a vessel and stay within close proximity, interacting with people on board for significant periods of time. This behavior is known as “mugging”.

HB003-PWF

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Hervey Bay is the only area in the world where curious humpback whales consistently mug vessels. It is not uncommon to be unable to go anywhere because a pod of whales keeps interacting with your vessel. Indeed, you need to wait for them to move away first, following Australian regulations , which require whales to be 100 metres from a vessel before engines can be operated.

HB001-PWF

When being mugged, whales will approach the vessel, and sometimes circle around it. The whales will often look at the people on board, tilting their bodies to one side or spyhopping, when a whale vertically pokes its head out of the water in order to scan the surroundings. People are always in awe as it is a very unique experience. Sometimes it makes you wonder who is actually watching who.

HB002-PWF

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Whales also dive under the vessel to pop up on the other side, repeating this behavior over and over. It often feels like playing a game of hide and seek where people on board will move from side to side in an attempt to guess where the whales will surface next. At times, the whales can be so close that our camera lenses are too big to take a photo.

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Below is a video that the research team filmed last whale season from our research vessel that captured what it is like to be mugged by whale(s).

Being mugged by a humpback whale for the first time is an exhilarating and breathtaking experience that will stay with you forever. Every day is different on the water but if you get the chance to be mugged again, I promise, you will never get tired of it.

It’s a match!

As you probably know, the underside of a humpback whale’s tail, or flukes, is the main characteristic used by scientists to identify individuals. In addition, a whale’s dorsal fin can also be used to distinguish individuals and/or help confirm a match. This is why, whenever possible, the research team aims at taking a photo-ID of the flukes as well as the left and right dorsal fins of each individual within a pod.

Dorsal fins vary in shape and form. Some are round, squared, pointy, even very hooked, which with a little bit of imagination, almost look like a witch’s nose. In some cases a dorsal fin might be scarred, for example from a propeller or fishing line, or even missing. Patterns and coloration of the skin on the body are also unique. So much that, occasionally, the conspicuous shape of the dorsal fin and/or the body patterns of an individual will attract your eye and stick in your memory. In those instances, you find yourself giving that particular individual a name that characterizes that special feature.

Collage different fluke shapes II

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

During the 2013 whale season for example, I took a photo of the left dorsal fin of a humpback whale that looked as if a white oval had been painted on its side, and that some of that paint had started to drip. I did find it intriguing at the time and, in my mind, named that whale “Paint drip”. That day, a photo-ID on its flukes was also taken so its official identification code in Pacific Whale Foundation’s ‘within season’ catalog was HB13021. Simply put, it was 21st individual to be identified in Hervey Bay in 2013.

Left dorsal paint drip 2013 II

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

This year, while processing the daily photos taken in the field by my intern Lorenzo, I stumbled across a photo of a left dorsal fin that looked very familiar. Could it be “Paint drip”? If so, that would be so exciting. I immediately stopped flicking through the photos as the anticipation and excitement were too much to bear and I really had to double check. I opened the 2013 humpback whale photo catalog, compared the photos, and discovered that the left dorsal fins were a perfect match. I have to admit, being able to remember “Paint drip” after thousands of photos taken and sighting it again this year made my day as I can have issues remembering people’s names at times.

Paint drip dorsals 2013-2014 IIjpg

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

I obviously had to share the news with the rest of the team. Even more intriguing was the fact that “Paint drip” had been sighted only 3 days apart over the two seasons, on the 12th of August 2013 and 9th of August 2014. Such information is very important for scientists as we learn more about the site fidelity and movement patterns of the East Australian humpback whale population.

The joy soon turned into a big disappointment because there was no fluke-ID, which meant that it could not be officially counted as a re-sight for scientific purposes. Our lucky stars, however, were shining upon us as my intern Tizoc told me he had seen “Paint drip” again the following day and that this time, we had a fluke-ID, HB14030.

Paint drip Flukes 2013-2014 II

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

Brilliant, this is the first official match between the 2013 and 2014 whale seasons. This is obviously something that we wanted to share with you all.

Gidday from down-under!

It is that time of the year again for some of Pacific Whale Foundation Research staff to head south for a few months to gather data on the humpback whales that migrate along the east coast of Australia. This year, I will be leading the research team again and will be joined by three interns: Lorenzo Fiori (Italy), Tizoc Garcia (USA), and Danielle Barbknecht (USA).

The team arrived in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where we will be based until then end of September. One thing for sure is how big Australia is. It is the largest island on the planet and is the sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, the USA, and Brazil. Hervey Bay is situated approximately 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Brisbane, about a 4 hour-drive. In October, we will relocate to Eden, New South Wales, as humpback whales migrate south to their feeding ground in Antarctica. This will be a 1,750 kilometers journey south or the equivalent of driving from Seattle, WA, to Los Angeles, CA.

OZ-BRIS-HB

Brisbane to Hervey Bay, Queensland

This whale season, the team will be collecting data from different tour boats, which were kind enough to let us join them on their whalewatch trips. Scientists refer to these boats as platforms of opportunity (POPs), because they have no influence as to where the boat is going and how long an encounter will last (those decisions are made by the tour boat captain).

The team had its first day on the water on August 1st and we could not have had a better welcome back to Hervey Bay. The first pod of humpback whales encountered were two sub-adults travelling south towards Urangan harbor. One of these subbies, as we like to call them, made a magnificent breach, with its full body out. Of course, it decided to perform this breach just as I was moving around the boat to get a better vantage point to take photos. Lucky for us, we sighted seven pods that day and I got the chance to redeem myself and get breach photos. Some individuals were also very active at the surface, including peduncle throws, head rise, upside down tail and pectoral slaps. On that trip, four pods of inshore bottlenose dolphins and several green turtles were sighted, which are also found in Maui, Hawai`i.

Active humpback whales in Hervey Bay

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

From a pure scientific point of view, it was also very exciting to get the first fluke photos of the 2014 whale season for identification purposes. Researchers can tell individual apart by looking at the ventral side of the whale tail, which are equivalent to human fingerprints.

Humpback whale tails, Hervey Bay

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

The team will also take turns to open Pacific Whale Foundation’s store at the Urangan marina, so if you are in the area, feel free to come and see us.