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!

Unusual Encounter with Bryde’s Whale in Ecuador

We were welcomed by a beautiful sunny day on the first week of the Ecuador research season. The excitement began when we saw the sun reflecting off of a whales’ dorsal fin, which was quickly followed by the characteristic blow. Echoing the whales blow were the cheers of excitement from the tourists as they knew we were about to experience seeing these amazing animals and confirm the start of our research season.

When you are in Isla de la Plata it’s easy to tell when the whales have arrived, as the horizon is dotted with white plumes of water vapor from the whales blow. This season, however, humpback whales are not the only species capturing the attention of tourists. The Bryde’s whale (pronounced “broodus” whale) has remained longer than usual and has captured everyone’s attention. Tourists may find the “not so acrobatic” Bryde’s whale less enchanting than the humpback whale, which is known for it’s magnificent breaches. For researchers, being able to study both species simultaneously is a rare occurrence, akin to finding a pot of gold.

Brydes Whale_resize

We have been limited to reports of feeding Bryde’s whales among large groups of birds to date, however, today we got the opportunity to photograph this species. Normally this species is moving continually, presenting few opportunities for photo-ID, but today’s encounter lasted for almost 10 minutes! We are looking forward to seeing more of them and, of course, searching for possible interactions with humpback whales. After all, they are all sharing the same magical area that is Machalilla National Park.

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.

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.