Expedition Patagonia

My recent travels took me to Patagonia, Chile to Chiloé, the largest island in the Chiloé Archipelago. My goal is to produce a documentary about an aspiring young girl interested in discovering the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale. Currently I am editing all the footage taken during my trip. I hope to convey the importance of girls in science and women in conservation leadership roles, specifically to protect whales and their ocean homes.

We departed Maui late at night and after 3 long flights we arrived at Santiago, the capital of Chile. A relatively short 1.5 hour connecting flight to the province of Puerto Mont, followed by a 60 km car ride to Pargua, followed by a 30 minute ferry crossing of the Chacao Channel to Chiloé. We finally arrived to the principal town of Ancud to pick up supplies. Paved roads turned into gravel and cell phone signals quickly began to fade. It was a pathway into the past, a place without time.

Our final destination was Punihuil, a small community on the west coast of Chiloé. Punihuil is a isolated, but popular, tourist destination famous for its offshore penguin colonies. It is the only place in the world where you see the Humboldt and the Magellanic penguins coexisting and nesting side by side.

Continue reading

Underwater Footage of Whales and Dolphins Interacting

If two animals share the same environment, then at some point they are likely to meet. In the wild these meetings are often between predator and prey; however, nature isn’t always so cruel. Some such encounters, referred to as “interspecies interactions,” can be playful or social, where neither individual is threatened.


The research team was recently lucky enough to observe two such interactions while surveying humpback whales off the leeward coast of Maui. The first was between pantropical spotted dolphins and humpback whales and the second between bottlenose dolphins and two humpback whales. Humpback whales and dolphins are more often observed in pods consisting of their own species; however interspecies interactions have been documented before. One notable example was in 2010 when researchers Deakos et al. observed bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales engaging in a “lift and slide” type of game off the coast of Kauai; which was such a significant behavior that their findings were later published as a scientific paper.

In the video captured by the research team, one of the two humpback whales is observed swimming with a group of bottlenose dolphins. Some explanations for this behavior could be:

  • Dolphins hunting fish that associate with the whale
  • Dolphins riding the pressure wave created by the whale swimming, similar to bow-riding
  • Dolphins bullying the whale
  • Play behavior, such as the whale attempting to coax a dolphin onto its head for another game of “lift and slide the dolphin”

The PWF Research Team is excited to be able to share this special encounter with you.

Reference:
Deakos, Mark H., et al. “Two unusual interactions between a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hawaiian waters.” Aquatic Mammals 36.2 (2010): 121-128.

2014 Australian whale season completed

While Halloween was celebrated in the Northern America, the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) research team stationed in Australia had their last day in the field in Eden, New South Wales. The day was made even more special by the presence of the replica of the HMS Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel that Lieutenant James Cook commanded on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand from 1769 to 1771.

After spending 9 weeks in Hervey Bay, a reduced team (myself and Tizoc Garcia) drove the 1,700 km (1,055 miles) south to Eden for an additional 3 weeks to collect more data on the humpback whales as they migrate south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. It was with great pleasure that we met up again with the Cat Balou owners, Rosalind and Gordon Butt and their crew, who have been supporting the PWF research team for decades.

Eden is a beautiful place, with a wild coastline and rich marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, and many bird species.

It is also colder than Hervey Bay, especially when the south-easterly or south-westerly winds start to blow. A few extra layers of clothing were often required.

Overall, the research team had a very successful whale season, covering just over 5,500 miles, the equivalent of the distance between Quebec City in Canada and Santiago in Chile!

The team spent 514 hours on the water and managed to take 332 flukes photo for photo-identification purposes. Each of these photo received a within season ID. Photos that will meet the quality criteria will then be matched with the PWF Australian photo-id catalog that contains more than 6,000 individuals. When comparing the within season photo-ids between Hervey Bay and Eden, 6 matches were made, indicating that humpback whales did the journey south between 20 (adult) and 35 days (mother-calf pairs).

The team also recorded just over 150 sightings of dolphins, mainly bottlenose dolphins in Hervey Bay and common dolphins in Eden. Bottlenose dolphins were present in both locations.

The 2014 whale season was quite different from the 2013 season. While it is challenging to compare data collected in Hervey Bay as two different platforms were used to collect data (research vessel vs tour boats), it was more obvious in Eden that less whales were encountered this season, including mother-calf pairs. As a testament to this, we often had to travel further to find the whales. This observation appears to be supported by other colleagues along the humpback whale migration route. To be sure, the team will analyze the data over the next few months.

Such fluctuation in numbers could be part of a natural phenomenon. In Maui, thanks to the annual Great Whale Count organized by PWF, a 4-year cycle in the proportion of whale sighted has become apparent over the years. According to PWF founder and president, Greg Kaufman, “This is likely a result of mature females being in sync on their calving cycles coupled with the general overall rate of whale population increase.”

We are looking forward to the 2015 whale season in Australia and seeing what it would bring. In the meantime, the Maui team is getting ready for their upcoming whale season in the field (December-April).

PWF research team is very grateful to the owners and crew of Shayla, Blue Dolphin, and Amaroo in Hervey Bay and of Cat Balou in Eden for their support over the past three months, by welcoming us on their whale-watching vessel to collect opportunistic data. As we say in Hawai`i “mahalo nui loa” (thank you very much) and “a hui hou kākou” (until we meet again).

2013-2014 Whale Season Summary

We just finished a wonderful milestone – the first time that the research department completed systematic transect surveys on our research vessel Ocean Protector throughout the entire whale season (December – April). We were hampered by some windy weather in April but overall it was a successful season. January and February had the most whale sightings, as usual, although we did see whales regularly throughout all of the season.

Some of the highlights of this whale season were:

  • 55 survey days and 455 hours in the field, covering 3218 nautical miles.
  • 293 sightings of humpback whales.
  • 12 sightings of bottlenose dolphins.
  • 11 sightings of spotted dolphins.
  • 5 sightings of spinner dolphins.
  • 3 encounters with false killer whales.
  • 1 encounter with short-finned pilot whales.

Thank you to our wonderful interns and volunteers, as well as our members and supporters whose donations continue to fund our research efforts.