Cascadia Research’s first Hawai’i field project of 2019 was based off Maui, from March 11-17, 2019. This project was the start of the 20th consecutive year of this study on Hawaiian odontocetes, although this effort was a bit different from most, as we were spending a lot of time also working with humpback whales (in conjunction with a film crew) primarily in the shallow waters of the Au Au channel. While the humpback focus may be surprising to long-term followers of our Hawai’i research, the first funding for the Hawai’i research effort (in 2000) was actually to work with humpback whales, a study examining their sub-surface and night time behavior. It was this early funding which allowed us to start the research on several species of odontocetes. The shallow waters of this area host only four species of odontocetes, and we were able to encounter all four during the project.
The crew for this project included Brittany Guenther, Jordan Lerma and Robin Baird, with help from Lee James, Lynn Padilla, David Reichert and Trent Ellis. For this project we used the Aloha Kai, provided by Ultimate Whalewatch.
By far the highlight of the week was an encounter with Cluster 4 of the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population of false killer whales. We were able to get identification photos of about 20-25 individuals, collected four biopsy samples for studies of genetics, aging, and hormone chemistry, collected three breath samples for a study of the respiratory microbiome, and obtained some beautiful GoPro and Drone footage of the group.
False killer whales from Cluster 4 of the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population.
Fast moving false killer whales!
False killer whales passing the cliffs off southwest Lāna‘i
We also witnessed at least three predation events, this one on a mahimahi
An adult pantropical spotted dolphin shows the complex spotting patterns of this species. One of the few species we do not have a Hawai’i photo-identification catalog of (we have catalogs of 13 species from Hawai’i), although we are collecting photos for the eventual creation of a catalog, as there are a lot of questions about stock boundaries and fisheries interactions with this species in Hawaiian waters.
As well as false killer whales, we also encountered two groups of bottlenose dolphins and were able to obtain identification photos to add to our photo-ID catalog for this species. There is a small resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the Maui Nui area, with some movements between Maui Nui and O’ahu, so these photos will help us better understand the interactions between these two communities.
Spending most of our time off west Maui we had dozens of encounters with humpback whales.This one has a large bite out of it’s flipper, likely from a shark attack.
We also photograph any unusual birds we see while on the project – the most interesting sighting of the trip was a Red Phalarope, a winter visitor to Hawai’i. For more information on birds we encounter check out our seabird page and the “Birds of the Hawaiian Islands” accounts at the Bishop Museum.
Photos on this page were taken under NMFS Permit No. 20605. Contact Robin Baird (rwbaird “at” cascadiaresearch “dot” org) for more information
We will be undertaking a 14-day field project off Lāna‘i starting February 20, 2018, funded through a NOAA Species Recovery Grant to the State of Hawai‘i. This will be our first Hawai‘i field effort of 2018, and the start of our 19th year of work in Hawai‘i! This will be our seventh year of working off Maui Nui since first working here in 2000, following on from a very successful field project off Lāna‘i in March 2017. We are based out of Manele Bay for the project, to allow quick access to the deeper water west of Lāna‘i. We have a number of goals for our field work, but the primary one is to learn more about false killer whales, through the deployment of LIMPET satellite tags, photo-identification, and collection of biopsy samples for genetics, hormone chemistry and toxicology. We also have funding for tags from Dolphin Quest, and hope to deploy tags on one or more of short-finned pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, or other species we encounter. As usual, we’ll be working with all species of odontocetes we encounter, trying to obtain photos for photo-identification catalogs, and we may also collect biopsy samples for studies of genetics, toxicology, and hormone chemistry of other species.
The research crew for this project will include Daniel Webster, Colin Cornforth and Robin Baird, all from Cascadia, Jordan Lerma from Uheheu, Brittany Guenther, and a number of volunteers. We want to thank Pūlama Lāna‘i for logistical support.
If you want some background information on our work in Hawai‘i we published a paper on our first 13 years of surveys and a pdf is available here
End of project update
March 6th was our last day on the water. Over the 14 days we 27 encounters of six species of odontocetes, as well as two encounters with sei whales, and many sightings of humpback whales. We took just over 20,000 photos, over half of them of false killer whales, always a good thing! With tags out on two different social groups of false killer whales (Cluster 1 and the rarely-seen Cluster 4), we more than met our goals for the project, and are looking forward to tracking the movements of these groups over the next weeks and months.
We also documented a number of predation events of false killer whales feeding on mahimahi, ono, and in the photo above a scrawled filefish.
False killer whale leaping, March 4, 2018.
Several of the fish the false killer whales were trying to catch were hiding under or in marine debris, in this case inside a plastic crate. This false killer whale is nudging the crate to try to dislodge the fish.
March 3rd update
Today we had another encounter with our priority species, false killer whales, this time with the rarely-seen Cluster 4 from the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population. The well-marked individual in this photo is HIPc122 in our photo-ID catalog. This individual was first documented during one of our field projects in November 2000, over 17 years ago, and was last seen during our March 2017 Lāna‘i project. Although the conditions were poor, we were able to get good ID photos of four individuals, and deployed on LIMPET satellite tag – only the third time that individuals from this group have been tagged.
We also encountered a very large group (~650 individuals) of melon-headed whales south of Lāna‘i, only the second time we’ve encountered this species in the Maui Nui area (the first was in our December 2012 project). This group is likely from the Hawaiian Islands population, individuals of which spend most of their time in deep water moving among the islands and into offshore waters. For more information on melon-headed whales in Hawaiian waters check out our web page for this species.
On March 1st we had our second encounter of a sei whale for the trip (and our second encounter ever of sei whales in Hawai‘i in our 18 years of working here!). This individual was off the west side of Lāna‘i, and while we weren’t able to get close enough to deploy a satellite tag, we were able to get a good view of the head (with only a single head ridge, unlike the similar appearing Bryde’s whale).
Another photo of the sei whale from March 1st, showing the very low surfacing profile of this species.
February 25th update
Today we encountered our highest priority species for the trip, false killer whales! We were able to get identification photos of about 18 individuals, and have matched some of the photos to Cluster 1 from the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population. As well as the photos, we were able to deploy two LIMPET satellite tags, to track the movements of this group over the next couple of months. .
An adult male false killer whale – adult males are both larger than adult females and have a more protruding rostrum, visible in this individual.
A bottlenose dolphin (foreground) following false killer whales (background) – we’ve seen associations between these two species before, and in this case the bottlenose dolphin was following the false killer whales when they were feeding on an unidentified fish, presumably trying to pick up scraps.
A false killer whale off Maui, February 26, 2018.
February 23rd update
The first few days of the project have been quite productive, with encounters with bottlenose dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, spinner dolphins, short-finned pilot whales, and the highlight of the trip so far, two sei whales. This was our first-ever sighting of sei whales in our work in Hawaiian waters, and the third species of baleen whale we’ve seen in Hawai‘i.
We’ve had several encounters with pantropical spotted dolphins over the last few days, but our encounter on February 22nd was quite productive, as we were able to deploy a LIMPET satellite tag on one individual to track their movements. This was only the 2nd spotted dolphin we’ve tagged in the Maui Nui area, and the 8th we’ve tagged in Hawai‘i. LIMPET tags on spotted dolphins last an average of 18 days, so we are hoping this tag will give us at least two weeks of movement information. There are three island-associated populations of pantropical spotted dolphins recognized from Hawaiian waters, one off O‘ahu, one off Maui Nui, and one off Hawai‘i Island. The exact boundaries and ranges of these populations are unknown however, and we are trying to determine these through satellite tagging.
Short-finned pilot whales off the west side of Lāna‘i, February 21st, 2018. The group we encountered was relatively small (~15 individuals) and we were able to get good ID photos of most of the individuals present. There is a resident population of short-finned pilot whales that regularly uses the area west of the island.
On Tuesday February 20th we brought the research vessel from Maui to Lāna‘i, and encountered a group of bottlenose dolphins in the channel. We were able to get good ID photos of most of the individuals present, to compare to our photo-ID catalog of this species.
We didn’t get any good images of the sei whales we saw on February 21st, but when Colin Cornforth and Shannon Harrison were bringing the research vessel over from Kaua‘i to Maui on February 16th, they encountered three sei whales, so we’ve included images of one of those individuals here.
The research vessel we’ll be using for this project, a 24′ Hurricane.
Our survey effort off Maui Nui in previous years (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2017).
Photos taken NMFS Scientific Research Permits. All photos are copyrighted and should not be used without permission (contact Robin Baird at rwbaird (at) cascadiaresearch.org for permission).
Thursday, October 12, 2017 – 12:32We will be undertaking a 10-day field effort off Hawai‘i Island starting October 7th, funded through a NOAA Species Recovery Grant to the State of Hawai’i, with addition support from Dolphin Quest. This will be our second field effort off the “big island” this year (our last was in June). Our primary goal is to find and learn more about the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population of false killer whales, and to maximize our chances of finding them we are planning on launching from Kawaihae each day (see map below), rather than our typical Kona work based out of Honokohau Harbor. The area off Kohala is a high density area for false killer whales in Hawai‘i, particularly the poorly-known Cluster 2. We are hoping to deploy LIMPET satellite tags to track movements, as well as photo-identify individuals and collect biopsy samples for genetics, hormone chemistry and toxicology. As usual, we’ll be working with all species of odontocetes we encounter, trying to obtain photos for our photo-identification catalogs, as well as collect biopsy samples for other studies, and are hoping to deploy one or two satellite tags to track movements of some of the other poorly-known species off the island. The research crew for this project will include Daniel Webster, Kim Wood, Colin Cornforth and Robin Baird, all from Cascadia, Brittany Guenther, as well as a number of volunteers. End of project updateWhile only a 10-day project, it was a very productive one. We covered 1,246 km, most of it off north Kona and Kohala, had 21 encounters with 9 species of whales and dolphins, took over 26,000 photos for individual identification and scarring pattern assessment, collected 8 biopsy samples, and deployed 3 satellite tags, the latter on individuals from the rarely-seen and poorly-known Cluster 2 of the endangered main Hawaiian Islands false killer whale population. Overall a very good project, and we are looking forward to tracking the movements of Cluster 2 over the next few months. Our next field project will start November 2nd off Oahu – check the web page for that project after November 2nd! October 15th update
The winds have picked up so we have shifted our operations from Kawaihae harbor to Honokohau harbor, allowing us to work in calmer waters to the south. Our three tagged false killer whales have primarily remained on the windward side of the island, so we are not missing those as we survey in deeper waters to the west. Over the last few days we’ve had sightings of spinner, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins, and today had our first encounter with rough-toothed dolphins of the trip. The individual above has a large mahimahi in the mouth – we saw a group of rough-toothed dolphins feeding on three different mahimahi.
We’ve seen rough-toothed dolphins, commonly known off Kona as “Steno”, feeding on mahimahi before but they also feed on a lot of smaller fish, including flying fish. The abundance of fish caught in today’s encounter seemed to encourage them to play and socialize, including this individual leaping out the water (see below).
We also picked up a hagfish that was floating dead at the surface and being fed on by Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. We collected the head of this specimen to send to the Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle for identification, as part of a study on diet of seabirds and marine mammals in Hawai’i. October 12th update
Our success on these projects usually comes down to one very productive day, and today was that day. We again encountered false killer whales from Cluster 2 of the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population (the third day in a row!), but this time we encountered a fairly large group (~18 individuals) early in the day (9:44 AM) and were able to stay with them most of the day (4:25 PM) in relatively good conditions. We were able to get good identification photos of about 16 individuals, collected six biopsy samples (all from individuals not previously sampled) and deployed three satellite tags. The last time we had such a productive encounter with this cluster was in 2015, and this is only the second time when individuals from Cluster 2 have been satellite tagged, so we are excited about tracking them over the next few weeks and months. The biopsy samples will be used both for genetics and studies of hormone chemistry, to examine stress and reproductive hormones.
One of the Cluster 2 false killer whales seen today.
This adult female, HIPc230 in our photo-ID catalog, was first photographed off the island in July 1987, over 30 years ago, by researcher Dan McSweeney. HIPc230 was adult-sized in 1987, so is at least in her 40s and is likely older. She had the injury on her dorsal fin when first encountered in 1987, likely due to an interaction with longline gear, which was fished close to the islands up until the early 1990s. We use images like this to assess evidence of fisheries interactions, and how it varies among the different social clusters and by sex.
October 11th update
The last couple of days have been very productive, with sightings of false killer whales and melon-headed whales two days in a row, as well as two different groups of pygmy killer whales. The false killer whales, like the one pictured above, are from Cluster 2 of the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population, our primary target species for this trip. We’ve been able to get good ID photos of a number of individuals, but as of October 11th have not been able to deploy any satellite tags. We are hoping they will stay in the area and we’ll have additional opportunities!
This well-marked false killer whale is HIPc150 in our catalog, first documented in September 2002 and last seen in 2016. We’ve never seen this individual with a calf and have not been able to collect a biopsy sample to confirm sex, but based on the size appears to be an adult male.
On October 11th we had two different encounters with one of the rarely and most poorly-known species of delphinid in the world, pygmy killer whales. The photo above shows the belly of one individual witih the white pigmentation around the genital slit and the rounded flippers typical of the species. We were able to get good identification photos of about 30 different individuals in the two groups. There is a resident population of this species around Hawai’i Island and a resident group off Oahu, with some movements between islands, so we are looking forward to matching these photos to our catalog.
The photo above shows the rounded head and white that extends from the lips onto the front of the head, typical of pygmy killer whales.
Pygmy killer whales are very difficult to distinguish from melon-headed whales, another species we saw today (see below), but in good lighting conditions you can see the clear line between the darker dorsal cape and the lighter pigmentation on the side of the body, as well as the frequent paired white linear scars typical for pygmy killer whales.
The melon-headed whales we encountered both days were in relatively shallow water (<1,000 m) on the plateau west of Kohala, and are likely members of the Kohala resident population of this species, numbering around 450 individuals. If you are interested in more information on this species in Hawai’i, we have several recent publications (including genetics and range/habitat use) available on our melon-headed whale page.
This photo of a melon-headed whale also shows the dark facial mask and indistinct boundary between the dorsal cape and lighter sides.
We’ve also collected several squid, now up to four for the trip. These squid are sent to Bill Walker at the Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle for identification, helping us understand the prey that are available to whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters.
October 8th update
In our first three days of effort this trip we’ve covered almost 500 km (480 to be exact) of tracklines off Kohala and north Kona, and surprisingly have only had four sightings of whales or dolphins, well below or average rate. We’ve had reasonably good conditions for much of the time, and yesterday (October 8th) we spent several hours in the ‘Alenuihaha Channel, making it half way between Hawai’i Island and Maui, but have not found our target species, false killer whales. We have had productive encounters however, today with a group of short-finned pilot whales, including the mother and newborn in the photo above, as well as pantropical spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins (see below). We’ve also collected two squid specimens, and obtained a few hundred photos of petrels and other seabirds.
A bottlenose dolphin off Kohala, October 8th, 2017
Pantropical spotted dolphins seen October 7th, 2017.
Pantropical spotted dolphins, October 7th, 2017
Our target species for the trip, a false killer whale (accompanied in this photo by two Wedge-tailed Shearwaters). This photo was taken off O’ahu in October 2016 as part of a field project there.
The research vessel we’ll be using for this project, a 24’ Hurricane.
This map shows our previous search effort during the month of October. We’ve worked off the island during the month of October in a number of years, most recently in October 2013. Photos on this page were taken under NMFS ESA/MMPA Permit No. 20605. Please contact Robin Baird (rwbaird (at) cascadiaresearch dot org) for photo use or more information. For updates from our prior field projects check out this page.