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.

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.

Pacific Whale Foundation Hosts Annual “Be Whale Aware” Lecture

Each winter, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawai’i to mate and give birth.  In Hawai’i, humpback whales are engaged in important social and behavioral activities. Approaching whales  too close or fast may disrupt these behaviors and cause unnecessary stress to the animals.

In order to promote responsible whalewatching, Pacific Whale Foundation developed the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines. These guidelines build on current federal and state regulations, as well as scientific research.

Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation’s founder and Executive Director, annually hosts a public “Be Whale Aware” training program. The training is utilized as a way to share best practices that Pacific Whale Foundation has developed during three decades of whalewatching around Maui. As part of the November Making Waves lecture series, Kaufman presented the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines and results from Pacific Whale Foundation’s current humpback whale research.

Studies have shown that ship speed and size are major factors when it comes to ship strikes.  A vessel traveling over 15 knots, for example, has an 80% chance of causing lethal injuries if it hits a whale. At speeds below 11.8 knots, the chances of a lethal injury drop below 50% (Vanderlaan & Taggart, 2007).

Pacific Whale Foundation’s “Researcher on Board” study in 2011 recorded a total of 2,464 humpback whale sightings. Of those sightings, 133 (3%) were surprise encounters. Findings from the study support the theory that vessel speed is important in avoiding collisions with whales. Pacific Whale Foundation recommends that all vessels travel no faster than 15 knots in Maui County waters during whale season.

The “Be Whale Aware” guidelines also suggest not approach whales directly from the front or behind, limiting viewing time with mom’s and calves to 30 minutes, and not having more than three vessels watching a whale at one time.  Download a copy of the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines.

All ocean users are reminded that federal law prohibits approaching whales closer than 100 yards.

Pacific Whale Foundation has equipped its catamarans with Whale Protection Devices to guide whales away from propellers and running gear. Each Pacific Whale Foundation vessel is also required to post a red and yellow flag when the vessel is actively watching whales. The flag helps alert other boaters to slow down because whales are in the area.

This year, Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team will be working aboard the dedicated research vessel Ocean Protector to continue ongoing research to document humpback whales in the Maui region. Kaufman discussed that the study focuses on identifying ‘hot spots’ where it’s especially important for vessels to keep a watchful eye for whales and maintain reduced speeds.

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers will be photo-identifying individual whales and collecting data on age classes, gender (when apparent), pod compositions and group sizes of the whales encountered. Kaufman highlighted the importance of understanding which whales — males, females, calves, older whales — are likely to surface unexpectedly around boats. Knowing the answer to these questions will help greatly reduce the threat of ship-strikes in Maui County waters.

References sited:

Vanderlaan, A.S., & Taggart, C.T. (2007). Vessel collisions with whales: the probability of lethal injury based on speed. Marine Mammal Science, 23(1), 144-156.