Pilot whale encounters 30 miles offshore

Our Research Team has begun surveying the deeper waters southwest of Maui as part of our new false killer whale study. The first day of research took us ~30 nautical miles off the coast of Maui in waters >2,500 feet. Although we didn’t see any false killer whales, we did have two encounters with short-finned pilot whales, a species we do not typically observe in the near-shore waters of the Maui 4-island region. This species has distinctive bulbous heads, wide dorsal fins, and sleek black bodies. Short-finned pilot whales are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females look different. Males typically grow to 18 ft long compared to females who grow to an average length of 12 ft. The dorsal fins on males are also larger and wider than females, making it easy to tell the two apart.

During our encounter with short-finned pilot whales, two researchers were taking above water photographs of the whale’s dorsal fins, another researcher was collecting underwater footage using a pole-mounted camera, while a fourth research was collecting detailed observations on pod behavior and composition. We observed two mother-calf pairs, two subadults, and the rest were adults, spread out into smaller sub-groups of 2-3 individuals. During the encounters we observed the pod feeding and resting at the surface of the water.

The majority of our research takes place after our field work ends, because the data we collected in the field must be processed. This involved looking through 520 pictures of dorsal fins, assessing each image’s quality, and matching each image within the encounter to see how many different individuals we saw. After data processing was completed, we had photographically identified 19 different animals. These individuals were then compared to our existing catalog of 133 short-finned pilot whales to see if any have been previously sighted. One individual matched to our catalog and was sighted back in September 2002. The other 18 animals had never been seen before and were added as new individuals, increasing our catalog size to 152 individuals. Since we do not often see this species, it was expected that there would be many new individuals to add, as the estimated population size for the entire Hawaiian Islands EEZ is 12,422 whales (Bradford et al. 2013).

This was a very successful day offshore! Stay tuned for other research updates from this exciting new study.

Kaho’olawe Island Restoration

In February 2018 twelve Pacific Whale Foundation volunteers participated in a public access to one of Hawaii’s most sacred islands – Kaho’olawe. Kaho’olawe is believed to be the kino lau or manifestation of Kanaloa a sacred ground for the people of Hawaii to practice and embrace their culture. This island is known as the piko, or navel of the Hawaiian islands, the crossroads of past and future generations where Hawaiian culture was spread. But the history of Kaho’olawe has not been an easy one. The island is thought to have been settled by Native Hawaiians since 400 AD but, as the years went on, a dark evolution of the island began to take place.

In the 1800’s it was used as a penal colony for adult men, in the early 1900’s the uncontrolled grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats on the ranch lands started to decimate native vegetation. In 1953, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy took the island under Martial Law as a bombing site. Ordnance were dropped on Kaho’olawe until the early 1990’s, destroying sections of land, eliminating acres of native vegetation, and causing massive amounts of erosion to come from the island.

In 2004 the process of removing unexploded ordnance from the island started, in hopes of restoring it to its once accessible state. Around 75% of the surface area of Kaho’olawe is cleared today and, of this, 11% is cleared to a depth of 4 feet. The next step in the restoration project has been to re-plant native vegetation to stunt the erosion and combat the extensive network of invasive plants that have moved in.

Nowadays so many volunteers apply to assist with this restoration that there is a multi-year waiting list. After a three year wait, a small group of Pacific Whale Foundation employees were admitted access to Kaho’olawe with a conservation mission to help restore the island. Our staff spent three days pulling invasive plant species and replacing them with over 1,000 new native plants, while exploring and learning of the cultural significance this island has to the Hawaiian people. Our staff were honored and  privileged to be allowed to partake in this conservation experience of a lifetime. Hard work and dedication to restoring this island was given to Kaho’olawe by a small group of volunteers, upholding one of Pacific Whale Foundation’s main tiers, conservation and environmental stewardship.

 

Kaho’olawe has generations of restoration work ahead of it, but with passionate volunteers dedicated to conservation and cultural understanding, this island will hopefully one day be restored.

Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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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.

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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.

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Sightings of baby spinner and spotted dolphins

Recently the research team set out towards the island of Lanaʻi to continue our odontocete and marine debris surveys. Around 9:30 am, we came across a pod of approximately 100 spinner dolphins, including five calves. Even better, two of the calves were neonates: newborn dolphins!

Neonates can be distinguished by their small size: only 75-80 centimeters long in spinner dolphins — about the length of a skateboard. They also have “fetal folds” on their sides. These vertical, lightly-colored “stripes” are the result of being folded up inside mom, and they fade with time as the calf grows.

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