“Look Before You Book”: Pacific Whale Foundation becomes a Dolphin SMART Operator

At Pacific Whale Foundation, we believe in the importance of connecting the public directly to the ocean environment in an educational and interpretive manner. It is this basic principle that has guided our eco-tour operations for the past 35 years. That being said, we pride ourselves on our commitment to responsible and respectful wildlife viewing.

We are therefore excited to announce that Pacific Whale Foundation is now an official Dolphin SMART operator, one of only six such operators in the state of Hawai‘i. Research has indicated that dolphins, particularly those that inhabit near shore coastal areas, can be negatively impacted by continued human interactions. The Dolphin SMART program thus seeks to minimize this impact by developing a set of responsible wildlife viewing guidelines for tour operators. Dolphin SMART operators, for example, maintain a minimum distance of 50 yards to dolphins and are prohibited to engage in activities such as swimming with or feeding dolphins.

The public also plays an important role in the success of Dolphin SMART. For example, by choosing to book with Dolphin SMART operators, the public essentially invests in operators that have made a special commitment to marine wildlife. So remember, always look for the Dolphin SMART logo before booking a tour.

Visit our website to learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation’s commitment to wildlife. To view a complete list of certified operators, visit NOAA’s Dolphin SMART program page.



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).

Putting an End to the Taiji Dolphin Slaughter, Right From Your Computer

Every year, thousands of dolphins are slaughtered along the coast of Japan in brutal drive hunts.  The majority of dolphins caught in these hunts are butchered and their meat is sold in restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country.  To fetch a higher price, and simultaneously tout itself as a more premium product, the meat is oftentimes purposely mislabeled as “whale” meat.  A smaller percentage of the animals are spared from death, and instead sold to aquariums and marine parks in countries such as China, Taiwan, Egypt and the Philippines.

Bottlenose dolphins are the most commonly caught dolphin species in the Taiji dolphin drive

Bottlenose dolphins are the most commonly caught dolphin species in the Taiji dolphin drive

Drive hunts, also known as drive fisheries, refer to the practice of herding dolphins and small whales into coves where the animals are subsequently slaughtered or, more rarely, spared alive to be sold into captivity.  While these hunts went on for years outside of the public eye, the rise of social media, revealing documentaries, covert video recordings and highly publicized protests have brought international attention and outcry to the issue of drive hunting.

September 1st marked the beginning of the annual dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan – an eight month long killing spree made infamous in the 2009 award-winning documentary The CoveOn average, the Taiji dolphin drive will result in the death of over 1,000 dolphins and the capture of 200 dolphins for the captivity trade.

Although the powerful Japan Fisheries Agency maintains that the yearly Taiji dolphin drive is an important part of Japan’s “food culture”, the drive itself is fueled primarily through the profits from sales to the multi-million dollar marine mammal captivity industry.  A dolphin slaughtered for meat, for example, fetches around $600 on the market, while those destined for aquariums or marine parks can be sold for up to $300,000.

Ric O'Barry with dolphin meat for sale, but labeled as "Whale" meat, in Japanese Supermarket

Ric O’Barry with dolphin meat for sale in Japanese Supermarket

Unfortunately, outside of individual country laws, there are no international protections for these animals.  The International Whaling Commission, for example, does not manage dolphin or porpoise species, only large, baleen species such as humpback whales.  Countries that partake in dolphin drives set their own quotas and manage their own industries.

Educating the public, particularly the local public, about the realities and environmental impacts of dolphin drives is therefore an important first step towards ending the needless slaughter.  The fact that dolphin meat is highly contaminated with mercury, in some cases exceeding the Japanese Ministry of Health’s recommended levels by 5,000 times, should be evidence enough that dolphin meat is unsuitable for human consumption.

The real change in Taiji, though, will come when we are able to put a stop to the marine mammal captivity trade.  In 2002, for example, Pacific Whale Foundation was an instrumental part of banning marine mammal captivity throughout Maui County.  U.S. law also now prohibits the importation of dolphins from Taiji for captivity purposes.

Ric O’Barry, the longtime dolphin trainer turned anti-captivity activist, has been a leader in raising awareness about the Taiji dolphin slaughter.  O’Barry’s annual pilgrimage to the town of Taiji coincided with this year’s start to the dolphin drive, and he spent the past weekend presenting hunt photos to the U.S. Embassy in Japan, staging beachside protests in Taiji and meeting with the local Taiji town council to discuss alternatives to the dolphin hunt.

The reality of the Taiji dolphin drive.  Photo courtesy of Oceanic Preservation Society

The reality of the Taiji dolphin drive. Photo courtesy of Oceanic Preservation Society

In addition, as the first dolphin hunting boats launched on Monday, O’Barry and his comrades across the world celebrated Save Japan Dolphin Day 2014, an international day of action that serves to protest the dolphin drive and the marine mammal captivity industry that ultimately fuels the drive.

As of day two, the dolphin boats have come back empty handed.

taiji dolphins

The good news is, you don’t have to be in Japan to help make a difference for the dolphins!  Here are 5 easy ways to be a part of the solution, without leaving your computer:

  1. Sign the petition. Sponsored by Earth Island Institute, this petition is currently over 750,000 signatures strong.  Sign your name and appeal to the U.S. government to urge Japan to revoke permits that allow for dolphin slaughter.
  2. Like” it and “Share” it on Facebook: Facebook isn’t just about updating the world about what you ate for breakfast – it’s a place to make a stand and reach a lot of people in the process! Start out by “Liking” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project Page and then “Share” daily updates (like this one) to your own newsfeed!
  3. #tweet4taiji: Social media takes ocean advocacy to the next level! Use the hashtag #tweet4taiji on your Twitter or Instagram accounts to join the conversation and also raise awareness about dolphin drives.
  4. Send an email: While it may seem slightly old fashioned, sending an email or writing a letter is still an important way to voice your concerns! Better yet, throw an email writing party and send to the following:
  1. Host a screening of “The Cove” or “Blackfish”: If you have a DVD player, projector and screen, you could host your very own backyard screening of these incredibly eye-opening and advocacy oriented documentaries for your friends and family.  Have everyone pitch in to cover the cost of the screening, and let the education go to work!  While you may actually have to move away from your computer for this one, you can at least purchase the film online!