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!

Pod types in Hervey Bay

In an earlier post, we mentioned the recent appearance of mothers with calves in Hervey Bay. Humpback whales do not all migrate at the same time; rather, multiple group types will be predominantly seen at different points throughout the migration.

The earliest pulse of whales to arrive in Hervey Bay is sub-adult whales; meaning whales that are sexually mature but have not yet reached their full size. Sub-adults in this area seem particularly curious about the vessels, and the early portion of the season is well known for “mugging” events where the whales approach the vessel. Later in the season, mothers and calves begin to migrate through the area, and the sub-adults continue their migration toward their Antarctic feeding grounds. Mothers with calves tend to stay in the tropical breeding areas longer than the sub-adults, likely to allow the calf more time to build up its muscles and blubber layer before beginning the migration southward. The protected waters on the westward side of Fraser Island provide a safe, sheltered stopover for these mothers to rest and nurse their calves.

Nursing is commonly observed here in Hervey Bay, and occasionally the mothers exhibit an interesting “fluke up” posture while feeding their calves. This behavior is characterized by the mother sticking her tail flukes out of the water and pointing her head downwards. While the mother is stationary in this posture, the calf will dive down to nurse and then pop up to the surface repeatedly for quick breaths of air. Eventually, as with the sub-adults, the mothers and calves will leave the area to continue their migration. It is important for the mother to return to the feeding grounds to replenish her energy stores lost from nursing as well as to properly wean her calf and teach it to feed on its own.

After the bulk of the mothers and calves have left the bay, mature whales will make up the majority of the latest pods in the season. These are whales that remained in the breeding areas the longest, for example, adult males trying to ensure the best chances of mating.

There are interesting trade-offs to consider in such a large scale migration where whales travel away from their feeding grounds, and these trade-offs affect whales differently depending on their sex, age, and reproductive status.

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

Field season in Australia is underway

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia research program is off to a great start this year. Based out of the town of Hervey Bay, we observe the whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia, travelling south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. We have had some amazing whale encounters, and we are already starting to see mothers arriving with their calves. Our research staff and volunteers have been going out daily since mid-July to photograph the humpback whales that migrate through the region. The whales in this population mate and have their calves in the tropical areas of northeast Australia and Oceania. The bay is relatively shallow and protected by Fraser Island, offering a nice area for the whales to stop over during their long migration south.

Working from the MV Amaroo operated by the Hervey Bay Boat Club, our researchers take opportunistic identification photos of the underside of the whales’ tail flukes. Since each fluke is unique to the individual, these photos allow us to compare the fluke of each whale we see in the field with our catalog of known whales to determine the history of sightings for each animal. Additionally, the team tries to get photos of the dorsal fins and body of the animal which helps us assess overall body condition as well as any lesions or scars that may indicate injury or poor health. To learn more about our Australian research projects, visit our website. To try your hand at matching fluke photos from our South Pacific catalog, create an account and get started at Match My Whale.

 

Unusual Encounter with Bryde’s Whale in Ecuador

We were welcomed by a beautiful sunny day on the first week of the Ecuador research season. The excitement began when we saw the sun reflecting off of a whales’ dorsal fin, which was quickly followed by the characteristic blow. Echoing the whales blow were the cheers of excitement from the tourists as they knew we were about to experience seeing these amazing animals and confirm the start of our research season.

When you are in Isla de la Plata it’s easy to tell when the whales have arrived, as the horizon is dotted with white plumes of water vapor from the whales blow. This season, however, humpback whales are not the only species capturing the attention of tourists. The Bryde’s whale (pronounced “broodus” whale) has remained longer than usual and has captured everyone’s attention. Tourists may find the “not so acrobatic” Bryde’s whale less enchanting than the humpback whale, which is known for it’s magnificent breaches. For researchers, being able to study both species simultaneously is a rare occurrence, akin to finding a pot of gold.

Brydes Whale_resize

We have been limited to reports of feeding Bryde’s whales among large groups of birds to date, however, today we got the opportunity to photograph this species. Normally this species is moving continually, presenting few opportunities for photo-ID, but today’s encounter lasted for almost 10 minutes! We are looking forward to seeing more of them and, of course, searching for possible interactions with humpback whales. After all, they are all sharing the same magical area that is Machalilla National Park.