Naturalist Spotlight: Maddie Buresh

“So what brought you out here? And … how? How did you do it?”

We get this question a lot. Many folks are fascinated by the steps it takes to become a Pacific Whale Foundation certified Marine Naturalist. Our naturalists are college grads from all over the country – Minnesota, Kansas, California, Idaho, Florida, you name the state – we’ve most likely had a naturalist from there. The majority of us applied online and had numerous phone and Skype interviews, where we were able to show our enthusiasm and demonstrate our knowledge of marine conservation. Plenty of us had other experiences outside of college before we started here, including marine mammal research, internships, and other field work. Our hiring managers must have an incredibly difficult time making their selections from all the interested and skilled applicants – who doesn’t want to move to Maui?

In this upcoming series of blogs, I’d like to introduce some of the incredible naturalists who work for our organization and explore their passions and experiences that led them to Pacific Whale Foundation.

Meet Maddie Buresh. This red-headed force of nature has been passionate about animals and biology since childhood. I asked her a few questions about how she got her start and what motivates her on a day-to-day basis. Check out our conversation!

1) When did you first realize you wanted to be involved with marine conservation?

I wanted to be a veterinarian since kindergarten, and it was only when I switched my college major from biology to marine vertebrate biology that I realized that I wanted to pursue that instead. No classes had ever made me feel that passionate about a subject or so driven to go and share what I learned.

2) What is your favorite part of being a Marine Naturalist?

The keiki. I love working with the kids. They’re just so enthusiastic and excited about the smallest things. You teach them, and they teach you too.

3) What’s one of the coolest experiences you’ve had out on the water?

There are so many amazing moments, but the coolest one was during a Sunset Cocktail Cruise, when a mother humpback whale and her calf came mere feet from our boat’s swim step.

4) How do you spend your free time on Maui when you’re not out saving our oceans through science and advocacy?

I like to spend time journaling and drawing in coffee shops, and I like to be outside. I also really love hanging out with my friends and their three little children.

5) What’s one thing folks may not know about being a Marine Naturalist?

We’re often in the spotlight as boat crew and educators, and many people probably think that is all that we do. But there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. As a PWF naturalist, a day’s work may require me to be a lifeguard, a research assistant, a wildlife interpreter, a cocktail server, a maintenance assistant, and a free diver to name a few. We have a lot of job descriptions wrapped up together, and a lot of responsibility –  but we also have amazing jobs.

6) You’re headed to Australia soon! Can you tell us what you’ll be doing down there and what you’re most excited/nervous about?

Pacific Whale Foundation is operating Hervey Bay Ultimate Whalewatches in Australia this summer – which is their winter. I’ll be playing a few different roles, from whalewatch naturalist, to research assistant, to office worker and retail staff. There is one word that can sum up both what makes me nervous and what excites me: CHANGE! It will definitely take me out of my comfort zone and challenge me, but I’m definitely looking forward to the whole experience and the growth that will come from it.

7) If there’s just one conservation message you’d like to leave folks with, what would it be?

If we let them, environmental issues can really get us down. But what would it look like if everyone in the world just did something as seemingly small as picking up one piece of trash a day? That would be over 7 billion pieces of trash. Let’s reflect on the negative things only as much as it takes to learn from them how we can make changes and work toward more sustainable lifestyles and a healthier planet.

Isn’t Maddie awesome? We think so too! Stay tuned for more features on our other naturalists. If you have any questions for us, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.








The Last Straw

Fact: 500 million plastic straws are used and thrown away every day in the U.S. alone. Shocking, right? That’s why, as of July 2016, PacWhale Eco-Adventures no longer serves plastic drinking straws on our vessels.

What’s the big deal about having a straw in my drink?

  1. Increased air pollution. Plastic production needs electricity, one of the leading sources of air pollution in the U.S., according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report. Oil and gas are also needed which means drilling, a harmful process known for destroying habitats. Then, gas is needed to transport the plastic materials from producers to straw makers, electricity is used to power straw-making machines, and even more gas is needed to deliver straws to customers. Besides banning straws, PacWhale Eco-Adventures has implemented a number of other green features, including using high efficiency engines on our vessels, locally sourced catering for our cruises, and LED lighting for our offices.
  2. Increased ocean pollution. Plastic drinking straws are one of the top 10 items picked up at beach cleanups worldwide. And it’s not just straws; studies estimate that 10-20 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. Once there, plastic can harm marine life through ingestion and/or entanglement. All species of sea turtles and approximately one third of all seabird species have suffered from harmful effects caused by eating plastic. If swallowed, plastics can cause internal blockages leading to starvation and drowning. Plastics also contain chemicals which can stop animals from being able to reproduce. Entanglement in debris also threatens marine life. Ongoing efforts to recover the endangered Hawaiian monk seal have been hindered by entanglement deaths. If you want to help clean up plastic debris from our coastlines, you can sign up for Pacific Whale Foundation’s Volunteering on Vacation program. If you’re not on Maui, don’t let that stop you, grab a reusable bag and head down to your local beach to collect some rubbish today.
  3. Unsustainable growth of landfills. Every piece of plastic ever made, regardless of whether it has been recycled, still exists. Up to 43% of the worlds plastic ends up in landfills, a situation that is only going to get worse.

So take a stand with us and say no to plastic straws, and single use plastics in general. You’ll be helping to create a more sustainable earth with cleaner air, land, and oceans for generations to come.



Freeing the Whales

Entanglement in fishing gear is responsible for the death of an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins each year. Last year, a total of 13 individual humpbacks were confirmed entangled in Hawai’i waters. It was the highest annual number of confirmed large whale entanglements in Hawai’i since reporting began in 2002. While 13 confirmed entanglements is a far cry from 300,000 animals, the issue hits home when it happens right in your backyard.

On Maui, the Hawai’i Disentanglement Network is responsible for responding to large whale entanglements. The Network is comprised of Sanctuary staff, tour boat operators, commercial airline pilots, tugboat captains, fishers, researchers, and private citizens. The Network relies on these individuals to alert the proper authorities of an entanglement. On-the-water efforts to disentangle animals are led by the Sanctuary’s Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator, Ed Lyman.

During the 2013/2014 whale season, Pacific Whale Foundation vessels reported humpback entanglements on six different occasions. Once an entangled whale has been spotted, Pacific Whale Foundation vessel staff immediately begin recording important information such as gear type and the location of the whale. A call is then placed to Ed Lyman, and the Pacific Whale Foundation vessel remains with the whale until the Hawaii Disentanglement Network team arrives on the scene. During this time, passengers are also encouraged to take photos of the whale. These photos assist in identifying the whale and provide a more complete understanding of the entanglement.

The two photos below, both taken by Pacific Whale Foundation passengers, demonstrate the importance of photo documenting an entanglement. The two photos are of the same whale, and were taken during the same tour. The photo on the left shows line wrapping around the whale’s fluke (tail). The photo on the right shows line wrapped around the whale’s body, forward of the dorsal fin.

Alone, these photos suggest that the entanglement is confined to a specific part of the body. Together, though, these photos indicate that the entanglement is extensive, and in fact, covers most of the whale’s body.

Unfortunately, by the time the Sanctuary vessel had arrived on the scene, weather conditions had deteriorated and darkness was falling. The team eventually lost site of the whale, and it was never re-sighted.

Most recently, on December 10th, a subadult humpback was spotted off of Sugar Beach entangled in heavy gauge, longline fishing gear. The gear trailed nearly 30 feet behind the whale, and was cutting into the whale’s flesh, creating deep wounds around the tail. The Network mounted an on-the-water response and successfully removed over 400 feet of line, which represented the majority of the entanglement. Since 2002, the Network has removed or recovered over 8,000 feet of entangling gear from 20 large whales around the main Hawaiian Islands.

In recent years, the number of recorded entanglements has increased. Unfortunately, scientists cannot determine how many humpback whales are annual killed as a result of entanglement. It is also likely that an increase in entanglement reports is due to more people on the water and increased public awareness. Nevertheless, entanglement has been identified as an ongoing threat to large whales around the world.

Luckily, you can make a difference for humpbacks no matter where you are located. Picking up trash helps prevent marine debris, and choosing seafood that uses sustainable methods decreases the chance that a whale will encounter dangerous gear. Pacific Whale Foundation vessels also make an effort to pick up any derelict fishing nets or gear when on the water.

If you are on Maui during whale season, alert authorities if you witness a whale pulling gear, or can see gear wrapped around a whale’s body. If you suspect an entanglement, call the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary at 808-879-2818.

Help Protect Maui’s Coral Reefs and Manta Rays

Maui truly is blessed in being surrounded by an underwater wonderland. In addition to hosting one of the largest concentrations of humpback whales during their birthing season in the world, we are also lucky to have the chance to see other graceful, unique denizens of the deep, such as monk seals, several species of sharks and even manta rays.

Maui is one of a few places in the entire world with a resident population of manta rays. Olowalu Reef, off of West Maui, is home to an estimated 350 resident reef manta rays. In nearshore reef locations, manta rays congregate around “cleaning stations”, where Hawaiian cleaner wrasse eat parasites of  the skin of a manta ray. Manta rays are also thought to breed in the shallow coral reef habitat.

Unfortunately, both species of manta ray (Manta birostris and Manta alfredi) are currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Manta rays are hunted in some countries for their skin, their fins (for the shark fin soup trade) and for their gill rakers, which are used in some Chinese medicines. Since manta rays mature slowly and have few pups, they are especially susceptible to fishing pressures. Manta rays around Maui have also been spotted entangled in fishing line and some have even lost part of their fins due to this marine debris. Learn more from HAMER.

To raise awareness, Pacific Whale Foundation has just launched a seasonal conservation campaign to take action and help protect the coral reefs of Maui that resident manta rays depend on.

On Maui, proposed shoreline development near the Olowalu area would cause increased runoff, which would smother coral polyps. Encourage sustainable development and responsible environmental policies by supporting conservation minded local officials, no matter where you live. Be sure to clean up and recycle monofilament fishing lines with Pacific Whale Foundation’s fishing line recycling program. Much is still to be learned about manta ray populations, migrations, habitat use, and behavior. Help add to knowledge of these animals by donating any “belly shots”, with sighting location and date, to Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research for mantas in Maui, or to Manta Trust, for mantas spotted in other parts of the world.  Good luck spotting these amazing ambassadors of the reefs!

The Plastic Problem: Part I “What are Plastics”

Plastics are everywhere – from cell phones to soda bottles, to trash on the beach and in our oceans. Yet while our lives are dominated by plastic, plastics and their environmental impacts are still largely misunderstood by many people. This three part series explores plastics—from their creation to what happens once they go in your trash can or recycling bin. Part I begins by answering the first big question: “What are plastics?!” 

While some plastics are naturally found in the environment, the majority are man-made. Man-made plastics are created when individual carbon molecules are chemically bonded together. These carbon molecules are typically extracted from oil, a non-renewable resource, but more eco-friendly alternatives use carbon derived from natural materials like corn oil. Individual carbon molecules are combined to create compounds like styrene, ethylene and formaldehyde. 

There are nearly limitless ways in which carbon molecules can be combined, which allows the creation of hundreds of types of plastics. One of the most prized characteristics of plastic is its ability to remain chemically inert when mixed with other substances.

This allows, for example, the storage of substances such as alcohol and gasoline in plastic containers, without compromising the integrity of the container itself. However, because plastic does not react chemically with other substances, it also does not easily decay. In fact, plastic never actually goes away in the environment—it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.


Another important chemical property of plastic is its ability to be easily molded into a variety of shapes, a characteristic that allows it to be extremely versatile and used in numerous applications. Plastics can be divided into two major categories: thermoset plastics that retain their shape once cooled and hardened, and thermoplastics that are less rigid and can return to their original form upon heating.

Thermoset plastics are used for auto and aircraft parts, while thermoplastics are easily molded and extruded into fibers, packaging and films. Within these two broad categories are numerous types of plastics:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is the main plastic in ziplock food storage bags;
  • Polystyrene (Styrofoam) is formed by styrene molecules. It can form a hard impact-resistant plastic for furniture, cabinets and utensils and when heated and air blown, forms Styrofoam;
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a thermoplastic commonly used for pipes and plumbing because of its durability and low cost as compared to metals;
  • Polyethylene is a type of plastic that comes in two forms: LDPE and HDPE
    •  Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) will float in a mixture of alcohol and water and is soft and flexible. It was first used to insulate electrical wires, but today it’s used in films, wraps, bottles, disposable gloves and garbage bags;
    • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a harder plastic than LDPE and sinks in an alcohol-water mixture.  Today, HDPE is used mostly for containers.

Plastics have proven revolutionary to our society, and we can thank plastics for hundreds of technological advances in science, medicine, space exploration, communication—you name it, plastics have played a crucial role. Yet despite the importance of plastic in today’s world, plastics have also proven to be one of the world’s biggest environmental issues.

Stay tuned for Part II: Where Does Plastic Go?

Ocean Camp in Maui

Wild About Whales!

group photo with whale fluke We ended June and entered July with our “Wild About Whales” week at Ocean Camp.  Although the fastest recorded migration for Hawaii’s humpback whales is 39 days, campers covered this approximate 3,000 mile journey in only four days! Participating in a variety of activities, campers explored humpback whale feeding and calving grounds and learned about the respective whale behaviors occurring in these locations such as bubble net feeding and nursing.

By understanding whale anatomy and research techniques, campers also learned how to identify individual whales from their fluke which is unique to each individual whale similar to how every human has a different fingerprint! We even experienced a behind-the-scenes tour of our research lab where we received tips from the experts while being surrounded by a collection of humpback whale data recorded over the last 30 years.

From fluke to stomach, we dove into and digested the different anatomical features of the whale. After examining the cluttery contents found in its stomach (albeit a non-invasive cardboard-constructed, brown-boxed belly), campers were motivated to partake in a beach clean-up along the south shore of Maui.  In about 30 minutes, they accumulated over 400 pieces of trash. Cigarettes butts and monofilament fishing line along with bottles and cans galore were ingloriously represented in this raid for rubbish removal, but campers delighted in their dutiful stewardship and were even recognized and appreciated by fellow beach patrons.

As the camp week closed, our campers celebrated America’s Independence Day and the freedom this day represents so that we can be a voice to create change. Among captivity, whaling and SONAR, one of the major concerns our campers voiced was the effects of litter and marine debris.

Poster with USA flag, breaching whale and "no more trash" Ultimately, we learned to be “Wild About Whales” is to be both whale and well informed. By acquiring knowledge and awareness, we are empowered to protect freely a habitat where inhabitants can live freely — free of debris, captivity, SONAR and other conservation issues. We dream big at Ocean Camp!