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!