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.

Their acrobatic displays and tendencies to bow ride make false killer whales hard to miss if you are lucky enough to see one. Hawaii insular population numbers are predicted to be as low as 123 individuals, with only 46 capable of breeding. There is good news though. The insular false killer whale population was classified as an Endangered Species in 2012, meaning this population now has extra protection. Keep your eyes open. If you’re lucky you will see one of Hawaii’s very own false killer whales.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Protecting Hawaii’s False Killer Whale. Pacific Whale Foundation. Accessed October 8, 2015
  2. Baird, R. (2009). A review of false killer whales in Hawaiian waters: biology, status, and risk factors. US Marine Mammal Commission: 1-40.
  3. Chivers et al. (2009). Genetic Variation and Evidence for population structure in eastern North Pacific false killer whales. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 85: 783-94.

Written by Chelsea Brown

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.

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.

After spending just under an hour with the spinner dolphin pod, we continued our survey and were rewarded again, this time with an active pod of approximately 45 pantropical spotted dolphins, including six calves.

Not only was it great to see so many calves in one day, but these sightings were also sources of valuable data. Photographs and behavioral data collected during the time we spent with these animals will help build our photo ID catalogs and further our understanding of the amazing dolphins living here.

FACT OF THE WEEK: Hawaii’s State Mammal is Critically Endangered

MORE ON THIS: To native Hawaiians, this furry creature may be referred to as ‘llioholoikauaua, but you personally know them as Hawaiian monk seals. These monk seals are endemic, meaning they are only found in Hawai‘i. They are one of the most endangered animals in the world, with their population of about 1,100 still declining.

These marine mammals are semiaquatic, spending most of their time at sea and some of their time on land.  “Hauling out” is a process where the seal goes onto the beaches to sleep, nurse, molt and rest. Here, a mother will nurse her pup for about 6 weeks and then the roughly 200-pound pup will have to fend for itself. An adult will grow from 6 to 7.5 feet in length and will weight between 375 to 600 pounds. They are generalist feeders, feeding on what is readily available, such as squid, eel, octopi, fish, and crustaceans.

There are many dangers that threaten the life of a monk seal. Food limitations, marine debris entanglement, falling victim to bycatch, mother-pup disturbances and illegal sealing (killing) are some of the anthropogenic, or human-caused, threats to these mammals. Disease outbreaks, predators and low genetic diversity are some of the natural threats that can harm them.  However, overfishing, littering, utilizing harmful fishery equipment, and harassing or killing seals are all very crucial things that humans can cease doing to promote population growth. Natural disturbances may not be able to be avoided, but humans can learn to live in harmony with these animals.

What we can do to help is:

  • give the seals lots of space when hauled out or in the water
  • follow fishing guidelines and restrictions
  • pick up litter
  • report stranded or entangled seals to the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Hotline at 1-888-256-9840
  • report harassment to NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at 1-888-853-1964
  • report ALL sightings of monk seals on Maui to (808) 292-2372

Many foundations around the island may also have volunteer opportunities for the public. Educating the public around hauled out seals and helping with population counts can benefit them immensely.  Even you can help the monk seal!

FURTHER READING:

  1. Hawai‘i Wildlife Watching Guide: Hawaiian Monk Seal. Pacific Whale Foundation. 2010. http://www.pacificwhale.org/sites/pacificwhale.org/files/Monk-Seal-Guide.pdf
  2. Protected Resources Division. NOAA. 2010. http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_hms_population_threats.html
  3. Hawaiian Monk Seal. National Geographic. n.d. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/hawaiian-monk-seal
  4. Who’s Killing Hawaii’s Monk Seals? Huffington Post. 2013. Nathan Eagle & Sophie Cook. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/06/killing-monk-seals_n_4399723.html

Written by Melissa Freese

Hawai’i Conservation Conference

lauren_conference2Today marked the final day of the 22nd annual Hawai’i Conservation Conference, where the “who’s who” of the protection and management of Hawaiian ecosystems descend upon the island of O’ahu to discuss issues such as coral reef health, marine mammal protection, climate change adaptation and building local capacity.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to exhibit Pacific Whale Foundation’s fishing line recycling program during the conference, and connected with numerous individuals and organizations to help expand this important program throughout Hawai’i.

Fishing line wrapped around a coral head (Maui)

Fishing line wrapped around a coral head (Maui)

Popularized in Florida, fishing line recycling programs are now found throughout coastal states, and represent a voluntary, community-based environmental initiative. Anglers and fishermen are encouraged to not only recycle their line, but to sponsor bins that they (along with their community) will maintain in the future.

Improperly discarded fishing line can entangle wildlife (most notably turtles, fish, seabirds and wildlife), and also pose a hazard to boaters and ocean users. By encouraging anglers to recycle their line, the program both directly reduces the amount of line that ends up in the environment and reduces the amount of virgin plastic that is needed to make items such as tackle boxes or spools.  And as you may know, plastics are the number one most common piece of trash found in the environment – so the less plastic we create, the less trash we make!

Kahului Fishing Line Recycling Bin

Kahului Fishing Line Recycling Bin

To date, Pacific Whale Foundation has installed two separate bins – one at Kahului Harbor and one at Ma’alaea Harbor.  These bins have thus far collected over 5,000 feet of monofilament line!!

Marine debris is a serious issue throughout the world’s marine and coastal environments, but it is local initiatives such as recycling fishing line or encouraging the use of reusable bags and water bottles that will lead to a more healthy (and happy!) environment.  These types of initiatives, furthermore, put the change directly in the hands of the community, and in doing so, empower the people who rely directly on the resources.

To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation’s fishing line recycling program, please visit Don’t Leave Your Line Behind.