The Results Are In: The 2017 Australia Research Recap

Another exciting whalewatch season is drawing to an end here in Hervey Bay, Australia. It has been a productive time for our Researchers-on-Board as we have continued to collect photo-identification data and educate our guests on the importance of the research upon which Pacific Whale Foundation has built its legacy.

From the beginning of the whalewatch season on July 15 through September 30, Ocean Defender has embarked on 96 whalewatches, which have served as platforms for our researchers to collect photos and observational data from the humpback whales.  Those trips have taken us a total of 3,767 nautical miles to encounter 402 pods of humpback whales. The researchers double as Marine Naturalists on these trips, engaging the public as part of our internationally recognized model of responsible whalewatching.

After photographs and data are collected in the field by our team in Australia, the dedicated research staff at our Maui headquarters analyzes and catalogs it, adding to our ever-expanding knowledge of these humpback whales. This season has yielded over 1,300 photos and some interesting additions to our South Pacific humpback whale catalog.

Our Research Department has added 18 new individual humpback whales from this whalewatching season to our catalog, which currently contains approximately 6,000 individual whales from several habitat areas.

Three humpback whales seen during the 2017 season were matched to our catalog: #3586, #2177,  and #0680. Whale #3586 was first sighted in 2006 before being sighted again in 2008 and 2017. Whale #2177, a female, was first sighted in 1999, seen with her calf in 2007, and seen without a calf in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Whale #0680, named “Uluru”, is one of our adoption animals, and she has had a calf for all of her sightings: 1989, 1993, 1995, 2006, and 2017.

Each individual added to the catalog or re-sighted provides us with more information that we can use to learn about these whales’ migrations, breeding characteristics, and life histories. Hervey Bay represents a unique habitat as a migratory stopover, and our researchers are interested in determining how humpback whales, especially mothers with calves, use this area. Pacific Whale Foundation additionally invites you to participate in our research as a citizen scientist. Whether you would like to submit your own fluke photos or assist in analyzing humpback whale photo-ID images with Match My Whale, we invite you to help with this exciting and important research project.

Double Take: False Killer Whales and Pilot Whales in the Same Day

When the research team carries out odontocete transects, we are looking for all species of toothed whales, but most commonly we see bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins. On rare occasions we see false killer whales, of which the insular Hawaiian population is on the endangered species list, and short-finned pilot whales, which is a deeper water species not commonly found in the shallower waters of our survey area. We might see these two species a handful of days per year. Well, believe it or not, we were recently lucky enough to see them both on the same day!

We were surveying the area behind the island of Lana‘i and we had a feeling it was going to be a special day when we set off from Ma‘alaea Harbor. We had just arrived at the start of our first transect line when we saw a large black dorsal fin. We soon realized that this was a false killer whale. At first we only saw one solitary individual, but it soon swam and joined the rest of its pod, which we estimated at 15 individuals. We photographed them to obtain ID’s for our false killer whale catalog and collected behavioral data. When we were satisfied that we had photographed all the individuals present we returned to our transect line, excited that we had such an exciting experience so early in the day.

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Mother-Calf Dolphin Resight

On August 12, the research team went out on the water surveying for odontocetes and marine debris. At around 11 am, we sighted a pod of 17 bottlenose dolphins and began taking photographs, as per our protocol. We spent the maximum allowed hour with this pod, giving our interns a chance to try their photo-identification skills and collect as many dorsal fin photographs as possible, as the pod was milling about and not difficult to keep track of. While we were watching the dolphins, we noticed there were two distinct pairings in the pod.

Later that week when we were in the office cataloging and examining the photographs, our analyst Jens noticed that one of the pairs was already in our bottlenose dolphin catalog. The same two individuals had been photographed together as a mother-calf pair  in 2011.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and again on August 12, 2014.

This mother and calf pair was sighted on August 6, 2011 and the pair was seen again on August 12, 2014.

This is pretty neat because using photo-identification we can track how long these two individuals stay together. Bottlenose dolphins have a complex social structure that is very different from odontocetes that live in stable groups like a pod of killer whales. They live in a fission-fusion society, meaning it is dynamic and always changing. However, the association between a mother and calf is one of the strongest bonds in the dolphin society. They will stay together on average for between three and six years, and we know that these two have been together for at least three years. It will be interesting to see what happens to these two individuals in the future.