Pilot whale encounters 30 miles offshore

Our Research Team has begun surveying the deeper waters southwest of Maui as part of our new false killer whale study. The first day of research took us ~30 nautical miles off the coast of Maui in waters >2,500 feet. Although we didn’t see any false killer whales, we did have two encounters with short-finned pilot whales, a species we do not typically observe in the near-shore waters of the Maui 4-island region. This species has distinctive bulbous heads, wide dorsal fins, and sleek black bodies. Short-finned pilot whales are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females look different. Males typically grow to 18 ft long compared to females who grow to an average length of 12 ft. The dorsal fins on males are also larger and wider than females, making it easy to tell the two apart.

During our encounter with short-finned pilot whales, two researchers were taking above water photographs of the whale’s dorsal fins, another researcher was collecting underwater footage using a pole-mounted camera, while a fourth research was collecting detailed observations on pod behavior and composition. We observed two mother-calf pairs, two subadults, and the rest were adults, spread out into smaller sub-groups of 2-3 individuals. During the encounters we observed the pod feeding and resting at the surface of the water.

The majority of our research takes place after our field work ends, because the data we collected in the field must be processed. This involved looking through 520 pictures of dorsal fins, assessing each image’s quality, and matching each image within the encounter to see how many different individuals we saw. After data processing was completed, we had photographically identified 19 different animals. These individuals were then compared to our existing catalog of 133 short-finned pilot whales to see if any have been previously sighted. One individual matched to our catalog and was sighted back in September 2002. The other 18 animals had never been seen before and were added as new individuals, increasing our catalog size to 152 individuals. Since we do not often see this species, it was expected that there would be many new individuals to add, as the estimated population size for the entire Hawaiian Islands EEZ is 12,422 whales (Bradford et al. 2013).

This was a very successful day offshore! Stay tuned for other research updates from this exciting new study.

What’s it like to do a research internship at PWF?

On the first field day for our two summer interns, you could sense the excitement as we set out on our research vessel, Ocean Protector, to survey for dolphins. Pacific Whale Foundation Research Department offers internships that give individuals the opportunity to get hands on experience in collecting and analyzing field data on marine mammals.

During our survey the interns were overjoyed when we came across a pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, as it was the first time ever seeing this species of dolphin for both young researchers. Spinner dolphins are named for their acrobatic spinning leaps that are unique to this species. These dolphins can spin up to seven times when they propel themselves out of the water. Scientists do not know for certain why they spin, but believe the dolphins may use the aerial spinning behavior as a form of communication or as a way to remove parasites.

As the interns took turns on the research camera, trying to capture photos of individual dorsal fins, they made several important observations about the group of around 80 spinner dolphins that we encountered.  They were first struck by the sheer size of the group. Spinner dolphins are usually sighted in large groups of 100-1000 individuals. The interns quickly learned that it can be very overwhelming to take photographs and get an accurate group count of the animals since multiple dolphins will surface at the same time. Due to these difficulties, we also use underwater footage captured on a GoPro to help us gather data on group size. As we continued following the pod and collect data, one of the interns asked why the animals were not spinning. We explained to the interns that spinner dolphins here in Hawaii typically rest during the day time, and feed in large groups offshore at night. Spinner dolphins’ resting behavior usually involves slow swimming, but spins and leaps can also be observed on occasion and can be a sign that the pod has been disturbed. After spending a memorable hour collecting the data and photos needed, we continued on with our field day.

Once back in the office, the interns got the chance to process the data that was collected in the field.  This involves looking through the photos that were taken, finding the best photo of each individual, and matching the individuals to our existing spinner dolphin catalog. The interns matched the photos to our spinner dolphin catalog that currently has 438 individuals, and found 27 matches. The current population of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the Maui 4-island region is unknown; our catalog will to help us estimate the number of individuals and look at their distribution and movements. These valuable data will help us protect these dolphins, which are facing increasing disturbances and threats from human interactions.

Meet our new adoption whales!

Pacific Whale Foundation has two new humpback whales from our North Pacific Humpback Whale Catalog that are available for a symbolic adoption.

Makena is an adoption humpback whale that was named in honor of Greg Kaufman, the Founder of Pacific Whale Foundation.  This whale represents the long-term research Greg did to promote ocean conservation and his effort to be a voice for protecting whales. Makena was first seen in Maui waters as an adult in 1997.  During this first sighting, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers photographed Makena in a surface active pod with five other whales, including a calf.  In 2014, Makena was sighted again in the 4-island region and a photograph of its tail flukes was taken by a member of the public and donated to the research department.  The story of this whale perfectly encapsulates Greg Kaufman’s legacy;  combining our dedicated research study with a citizen scientist program, and promoting marine education and conservation through our animal adoption program.

Sally is a female humpback whale that has become famous in the Maui area thanks to her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  The “fluke-up” behavior is rarely seen in Hawaiian waters, and is referred to by some as “sailing”. Sally was first observed by our researchers exhibiting the “fluke-up” behavior with her calf nearby in 2016.  No one fully understands the purpose of this behavior, but in 2018, this whale once again had a calf and several times throughout the season was seen displaying the same posture. Photos of Sally were donated to the research department from one of our Keiki Whalewatches, and from Naturalist Josh Wittmer aboard PacWhale Eco-Adventures whalewatch.

 

Want to know more about these amazing individuals? When you adopt a marine mammal through our adoption program you get the chance to learn more about the specific animal’s story and get updates on any re-sightings of the individual.  By adopting one of these animals, you will be able to learn more about Makena the whale, or Sally and her unique “fluke-up” behavior.  Check out our website to learn how to adopt one of these magnificent whales, or any of our other marine mammals that are available for adoption from our catalogs.

And remember, when adopting a dolphin or whale you are supporting PWF’s ongoing research, education, and conservation efforts to protect marine life. Thank you for your support!

Nala the Famous Humpback Whale

One very special humpback whale and her calf made the news this whalewatch season, and it isn’t the first time. Not only is Nala a celebrity in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community and a frequent visitor to the area, she is also a long-time mother and a real-life example of how our research at Pacific Whale Foundation is making a difference.

Ask anyone in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community who Nala is, and almost anyone will have  heard of the famous whale. Her name was given to her in 1996 by a group of students at Hervey Bay High school who, going along with a Lion King theme, named her calf that year Simba. She has since been dubbed the “icon” whale of Hervey Bay and over the years, Nala has earned the respect and admiration of many.

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Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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An Exciting Start to Australia’s Whalewatch Season

This whalewatch season in Hervey Bay, Australia marks an exciting continuation of Pacific Whale Foundation’s mission to protect our oceans and study the humpback whales in the East Australian population. These whales stop over in Platypus Bay every winter on their migration back to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) began its long relationship with Australia’s whalewatching capital in the 1980s when our Founder and Executive Director, Greg Kaufman, discovered the beauty of the humpback whales in Platypus Bay, off of Fraser Island, and pioneered the area’s first whalewatch on a borrowed fishing boat. Since then, Greg and the PWF researchers have been important figures in Hervey Bay, conducting photo-identification studies on these amazing animals each winter.

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