A Dynamic Disequilibrium

When we go on whalewatches, we are entering the world of humpback whales to encounter them in their natural environment. Passengers and crew are often astounded by the diverse behaviors and characteristics of these animals, but occasionally we are also presented with sobering reminders that threats to whales and other marine life are still very real. On one of our recent whalewatches out of Hervey Bay, Australia, all those aboard Ocean Defender were given a glimpse into humpback whale entanglement.

As we entered Platypus Bay we saw our first whale sighting of the day, and the level of excitement was rising. There was a whale swimming by itself, which is not unusual for a humpback whale, but after a few minutes it seemed there may be something wrong. This particular whale was acting stressed and swimming erratically. Then we noticed something odd; as the whale surfaced we could see a laceration on its dorsal fin from dragging several lines.

Whale 1 Resize

Since commercial whaling was ended in the 1960s, we have seen the East Australian humpback whale population rise from an estimated 200 – 1,200 humpback whales to over 14,500 whales. Not only that, but they are continuing to increase at a rate of 11% each year. However, the effort to protect these creatures is not over. In Queensland alone, entanglement in shark control gear and fishing gear, as well as other marine debris, accounts for one-third of humpback whale strandings.

This was the first time our passengers and many of the crew had seen an entangled whale. Though government regulations do not allow us to assist with entanglement response, local authorities assessed the situation. They searched for the whale the following day to attempt to help it but, unfortunately, were not able to relocate the animal. The situation created a dynamic disequilibrium; an internal conflict that catches people’s attention and moves them to reassess things. It opened their eyes to the reality that marine conservation is necessary, and that human activities make a very real impact on marine life.

Whale 2 Resize

Not everyone can collect marine debris or disentangle a whale, but a significant positive impact can be made by us working together. Small actions like picking up trash on the beach and choosing to recycle, or larger actions like commiting to a plastic free lifestyle or becoming an active part of a local conservation group all add up. Just look at the history of these whales – due to conservation efforts we have already seen enormous recovery in their populations. Our potential impact is limitless.

If you have any questions, or want to learn more about how to become involved in our mission, leave a comment below!

Please note: if you do come across an entangled whale, do not attempt to assist or free the animal as it is unsafe and illegal unless properly authorized and permitted. Training is highly specialized and requires proper equipment and personnel.

Exciting matches in South Pacific catalog

We have been busy in the research department adding humpback whales from the 2016 Hervey Bay field season into our South Pacific humpback whale catalog. Along with adding some new animals, we have already made two matches, which is quite a feat considering that each new photo has to be checked against over 6000 others.

The two matched whales were each sighted with a calf during this field season, meaning we can confidently know that they are females. Both females have a long sighting history going back to 1993. Although we don’t know their exact ages, this sighting span means that both animals are at least 23 years old. As we continue to process the 2016 field data, we’re looking forward to making additional matches like these two in order to help us learn more about the South Pacific humpback whales.

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!

Are the whales jumping for joy in Hervey Bay?

Breaching, or jumping out of the water, is a behavior that the PWF researchers in Hervey Bay and in Maui observe frequently. A commonly asked question is “Why do whales breach”? The short answer is that no one knows a single cause for this behavior; however, there are a number of theories about what drives such impressive whale acrobatics.

One possibility is that the whales breach just for fun, similar to humans and other terrestrial mammals when they are excited or playing. Another option is that they use breaching and other surface activity as a way of communicating to other whales. If you’ve ever been close to a breaching whale, you know that the sound is astonishing. The sound is also quite loud underwater and may be used to communicate the whale’s location or activity level to other whales in the distance. It has also been suggested that whales breach to deter predators or other perceived threats.

Young calves may have a completely separate motivation for breaching. As more mother and calf pairs enter Hervey Bay, researchers and whalewatch passengers alike can’t help but to notice the awkward jumps of young calves. These calves are trying to imitate what the larger whales are doing with mixed success. Breaching calves are entertaining to watch, but there has been recent research suggesting that through repeated breaching, humpback whale calves increase the amount of myoglobin in their muscles. Myoglobin is a protein that binds iron and oxygen, and high concentrations of myoglobin can improve the diving ability of marine mammals.

There are a variety of possible explanations for why whales breach, but it is most likely that whales do not breach for any single reason, but rather do this behavior for a number of reasons that serve different functions throughout the seasons and over the course of their lives.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

Paddle Out For The Whales makes a splash in Australia

As part of the Hervey Bay Oceans Festival, our researchers had the opportunity to be involved in Paddle Out for the Whales–an event to help raise awareness of the threats whales face today. 

The event involved paddling out on a craft of your choice (SUP, kayak, inflatable raft, or handmade) to observe a minute of silence acknowledging the importance of whales and the ocean to Hervey Bay. Before the paddle out began, a live Zumba session got the paddlers loose and limber. One of our research volunteers, Jaimi, paddled out by kayak to participate in the event while Research Assistant Jessica remained on land to give an informative talk about PWF’s research in Hervey Bay. A PWF booth was present at the event to sell items from our Australia-based gift shop, as well as engage with community members about the research in Australia.  The event also featured live music, sandcastle building, and construction of a 6-foot papier mache whale.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

The lives and loves of Machalilla National Park

It is always exciting to see competing pods of male humpback whales. Their jumps, bumps, and tail maneuvers directed at the females also serve to amaze and surprise us observers. Puerto Lopez, the marine area off the Machalilla National Park, is known for breeding and mating humpback whales. It is a magical place and very exciting to see these whales looking for love. This month we will likely begin to see the calves during our encounters, the product of last year’s mating.

Newborn calves are born a whopping 4 meters in length and have a light whitish color. This appearance makes them even more beautiful to us than their parents are. Though their size and weight may be small, they can easily propel their bodies out of the water, often imitating the adult behaviors.

This week we came across what we presumed to be a pregnant female with two accompanying adults. Close to Isla de La Plata, the group of three humpbacks seemed to be helping each other. One appeared pregnant and looked ready to give birth, the other two appearing to help. The behavior was incredible to watch. The escort would slowly suspend his tail in the air then gently assist in floating the slow moving pregnant female to the surface with nudges from his rostrum. Sometimes we could see the head pop up beneath the female, similar to a spy hope but very slow.  We were hoping to witness a birth, and stayed as long as possible, but with no luck.

When we have such close encounters and see a new life being created in Ecuadorian waters, we pledge to work harder for these magnificent creatures. Humpback whales are part of our world, and we consider them to be Ecuadorian because they are made and born in Ecuador.

AMOR Y VIDA EN EL PARQUE NACIONAL MACHALILLA

Siempre es exitante ver ballenas, sus saltos, golpes de cola y todas las maniobras que hacen para sorprender a las hembras. Por supuesto, Puerto López y el área marina del Parque Nacional Machalilla es una mágica área de amor y pasión de ballenas. Es conocida como área de reproducción y apareamiento. Sin embargo a partir de este mes, lo que más me gusta, es encontrar crías o bebes de ballenas.

Me encanta cuando una madre esta cerca a su cría, la cobija y no se separa de ella. Las crías nacen con 4 metros de largo y tienen un color más claro y blanquesino. Las crías saltan muchas veces o tratan de imitar el comportamiento de los adultos, son todavía más bellas y tiernas, aunque su tamaño y peso realmente nos supere.

Esta semana pudimos encontrar crías pero tambien hembras preñadas.  Cerca a la Isla de La Plata había un grupo de tres  jorobadas que parecía ayudarse unas con otras. Una de ellas preñada y lista para dar a luz, dos de sus compañeros simulaban ayudarle, su comportamiento era increible, como flotando, sacaban la cola lentamente y la mantenían en el aire y después era como que empujaban a la hembra a la superficie, estaba gorda y nadaba lentamente. A veces podía ver sus cabezas lentamente como en posición de espía. Esperamos todo el tiempo que pudimos, cruzando los dedos por ver a la cría, no tuvimos suerte, pero estamos seguros que esa cría nació en ese día.

Cuando tenemos estas experiencias de cerca y podemos ver crear nueva vida y esta vida esta en aguas ecuatorianas, nos comprometemos a trabajar más duro, para seguirlas viendo nacer y no tener que verlas morir a manos de la cacería inconsciente y discriminada, que no entiende que el mundo es una solo y que estamos obligados a compartirlo y no ha dominarlo. Las ballenas jorobadas son parte de nuestro mundo, son ecuatorianas porque nacen y se hacen en Ecuador.