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.


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.

Humpback whales are freeing our hearts

It was a Sunday afternoon when a woman sent me a text message explaining that she had been observing whales on land with binoculars in Ayampe (20 minutes away from Puerto Lopez). Unfortunately, during her whalewatching, she spotted an entangled whale trailing yellow buoys, which are commonly used on nets in the area. She further explained that the net was draped over the whales back, and it was almost stranding near Ayampe beach.

A terrible sensation flooded me as I rushed to call the Machalilla National Park whale entanglement rescue team. The team, including myself, were ready in no time and went out into a really choppy ocean with high hopes of finding and freeing the whale. After about an hour of looking, we finally spotted the distressed animal fairly close to shore. It appeared to be struggling to get the net away from its mouth, closing and opening it with a comprehensible amount of desperation and fear.

Following the usual procedure the team started to add buoys to the entanglement, hoping the added weight would tire the whale so it would stay at the surface. This would then allow the team to be able to remove the net using long poles and sharp blades. Unfortunately, while attempting to cut through the large amount of net around the whale’s fluke, the cutting knife became dislodged and was lost in the ocean. This was difficult as the knife was specially made by NOAA and donated to us to use when freeing entangled whales. With no other options, the rescue team started using hooks made by the park rangers of Machalilla National Park. One by one, these hooks made with steel started to bend from the heavy netting. The whale at this time had so much bunched netting that the pressure of trying to cut it was futile. This was by far the most difficult rescue we had experienced and the bunched netting was too strong for our blades.

Soon the day started fading away and we started losing hope and realized we needed additional help. One of the park rangers and rescue team member decided to call his brother, who was a diving fisherman, and asked him to come and help. When he arrived, his team was ready to help. They put on their dive gear and cautiously got into the water with the helpless whale. It took about 4 more hours of risky direct contact with the stressed whale to take most of the net off and free the pectoral fins. When this happened, the whale recovered its strength and started swimming fast and trying to dive. We realized this was the time to let go, as it was getting dark and was going to be almost impossible for us to remove the last bit of remaining net around its flukes. Hopefully, the remaining gear will untangle or detach by itself.

We watched the whale swim away looking much less distressed and welcoming its regained freedom. In the middle of the ocean we lay there, tired, hungry and cold, but satisfied we did everything we could to help the whale. Nothing could take that satisfaction away from us. Not only did we free the whale from a slow and tragic death, but we had also comforted a bit of our own guilt, as the whale was caught in our man-made netting.

I would like to thank the special people of Machalilla National Park whale entanglement team and the fishermen who were able to come and help. Thank you for dedicating your time and even risking your lives to this noble effort of giving another opportunity to these gentle giants of the sea. Whales are definitely freeing our hearts.

Las ballenas jorobadas estan liberando nuestros corazones

Era una domingo por la tarde cuando una señora me escribio a mi celular. Ella habia estado observando ballenas con binoculares desde Ayampe, a tan solo 20 minutos de Puerto Lopez. No traia buenas noticias: ella habia observado una ballena enredada en redes de pesca con las caracteristicas boyas amarillas alrededor de su cuerpo, muy cercana a varar en las playas de Ayampe.

Una terrible sensación inmediatamente me invadio mientras me apresure a llamar al equipo de rescate del Parque Nacional Machalilla. Pronto estuvimos listos para zarpar en busca de la ballena. Despues de casi 1 hora de busqueda, finalmente la encontramos muy cerca a la orilla, luchando por deshacerse de la red que envolvia su rostro, mandibula y aletas pectorales, abriendo y cerrando la boca con un comprensible nivel de desesperacion y miedo.

Siguiendo el procedimiento habitual, el equipo empezo a amarrar boyas a la ballena, en un intento de cansarla y calmarla, para que permanezca en la superficie y que ellos sean capaces de cortar la red utilizando un tubo largo y una cuchilla especial. Debido a la enorme cantidad de red entrelazada en la cola de la ballena, la gran cantidad de presion al tratar de cortarla hizo que perdieramos la cuchilla especial que el equipo de rescate de ballenas de NOAA nos habia donado en años anteriores, de modo que tuvimos que reemplazar estas con unas cuchillas artesanales que los guardaparques del Parque Nacional Machalilla habian desarrollado para esta causa. Una por una, esas cuchillas, hechas de acero, comenzaron a doblarse…SI, a doblarse. La ballena tenia tanta red amontonada en su cola que la presion al intentar cortarla era demasiada…una presion que no habiamos experimentado antes, y que era mucho mas fuerte que nuestras cuchillas.

Pronto, el dia empezaba a esfumarse, junto con nuestras esperanzas..necesitabamos ayuda. Uno de los guardapaques del equipo llamo a su hermano, pescador buzo de Puerto Lopez, y le pidio ayuda. Cuando llegaron, el equipo de rescate no dudo en ningun momento: al instante usaron el equipo de compresion y tomaron las mangueras para sumergirse a bucear con la tan necesitada ballena. Tomo 4 horas mas de un peligroso contacto directo con la estresada ballena para removerla mayoria de la red de pesca y finalmente liberar sus aletas pectorales. Cuando esto ocurrio, la ballena recupero su fuerza e inmediatamente empezo a nadar rapido y a tratar de sumergirse. Entonces nos dimos cuenta que ya era tiempo de dejarla ir..el dia se estaba oscureciendo e iba a resultar casi imposible ya removerle el ultimo resto de cuerda alrededor de su cola…el cual ojala con el tiempo se desenrede o degrade por si solo.

Finalmente, observamos a la ballena irse nadando..ya no con movimientos bruscos ni de inconformidad, sino simplemente de nado y bienvenida a su libertad recuperada. En la mitad del oceano, alli yaciamos, cansados, hambrientos y con frio…pero satisfechos. Ni siquiera la sensacion mas perturbadora podria quitarnos esa satisfaccion tan inmensa. No solamente habiamos librado a una ballena de una muerte lenta y tragica….tambien habiamos consolado un poco de nuestra culpa…la culpa de cada uno de nosotros los humanos, responsables por el daño que les hacemos a estas maravillosas criaturas, y al mundo entero. Agradezco a las personas especiales del equipo de rescate de ballenas del Parque Nacional Machalilla, y a los pescadores que siempre estan dispuestos a ayudar. Gracias por dedicarles su tiempo y hasta poner en riesgo sus vidas para este noble esfuerzo de darles una nueva oportunidad a estos gentiles gigantes del oceano. Definitivamente las ballenas estan liberando a nuestros corazones..

Celebrate Endangered Species Day

Endangered Species Day is a celebration of the nation’s wildlife and wild places and is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species. Started in 2006 by the United States Congress, Endangered Species Day occurs on the 3rd Friday of May to inspire people to take action in their everyday lives to help protect endangered species.

At Pacific Whale Foundation we research two endangered species: humpback whales and false killer whales.

As with many endangered species, both humpback whales and false killer whales are endangered due to human activities. The North Pacific population of humpback whales was hunted until only a few hundred individuals remained. Although their population has recovered immensely—recent estimates suggest approximately 20,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific—they and other large whale species are still at risk of vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Our current research on humpback whales aims to reduce the risk of these collisions by determining which factors contribute to detectability of the whales.

The major threat for false killer whales is entanglement in longline fishing gear. False killer whales prey on economically important pelagic fish such as mahi and tuna. Unfortunately, this results in frequent interactions with fishing gear that lead to entanglement injuries and bycatch events. Research on false killer whales at Pacific Whale Foundation focuses on abundance, distribution and social structure, allowing us to better manage and conserve this species.

For Endangered Species Day 2016, try incorporating these actions into your daily routine:

Make purchasing choices to protect endangered species:

Opt for biodegradable packaging instead of plastics and other synthetic materials that contribute to the growing problem of persistent marine debris. Use the Seafood Watch app from Monterey Bay Aquarium to choose fish that are caught in ways that protect endangered species from threats such as entanglement and bycatch.

Visit a national wildlife refuge, park, or sanctuary:

One of the best ways to conserve endangered species is to conserve the places that they call home. National wildlife refuges, parks, and sanctuaries are often designated because they provide crucial habitat for endangered species. Whether it’s watching humpback whales within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary or trying to catch a glimpse of a manatee in Everglades National Park, visiting and supporting these protected areas goes a long way toward the conservation of these species.

Support experiences that respect wildlife and their habitats:

For your summer vacation, choose activities that respect wildlife and natural areas. Look for certified ecotourism companies with a focus on conservation and responsible management of endangered species.  For example, Pacific Whale Foundation is a certified sustainable tour operator with science, advocacy, and conservation at the core of its mission.

Adopt an Endangered Species:

Several organizations offer the opportunity to adopt different endangered species. Adoptions are a great way to support conservation efforts while getting to know the life history of individual animals. At Pacific Whale Foundation, you can adopt your very own humpback whale or false killer whale to help our researchers learn more about these species. We offer multiple levels of adoption packages, but all include an adoption certificate, sightings history, and sightings map of your whale.