An early pioneer in humpback whale research off Maui, Pacific Whale Foundation Founder and Executive Director Greg Kaufman recalls the 1970s, when whale sightings were so few that he only launched his research raft when he had located a whale from shore.
"We'd drive the coastal roads with our raft on the roof of the car, watching for a sign of a whale, then quickly unload the raft and motor out to observe the animal," he said. "There were entire days when we didn't see any whales."
Since those days, Maui's whale population has increased dramatically. An estimated 10,000 to 13,000 humpback whales visit Hawai'i's waters each year. The largest numbers are found off Maui's coast.
Pacific Whale Foundation’s dedicated research boat, “Ocean Protector,” is used for the foundation’s study of toothed whales and dolphins off Maui and Lāna‘i, as well as its humpback whale study.
During eight hours of whale research at the peak of the season in February, it is not uncommon for Pacific Whale Foundation's research team to observe 10 to 50 whales within 300 meters of "Ocean Protector."
As the whale population has increased, so have the goals for Pacific Whale Foundation's research.
"With this larger population, we are examining issues relating to the interaction of whales and humans--namely, vessels," said Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez, senior research scientist at Pacific Whale Foundation. "Our ultimate goal is to provide data that will help vessels navigate safely in areas where whales are present."
Pacific Whale Foundation's humpback whale study, operating under a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permit (#16479), takes place on its dedicated research vessel, "Ocean Protector." The small boat is used to travel pre-designated transect lines laid out in orderly parallel lines, one nautical mile apart. While traveling these lines at varying speed (five to 20 knots), the researchers note all "surprise encounters"--when whales surface unexpectedly within 300 meters (approximately 330 yards) of the vessel.
"We record the time, location of the surprise encounter, group size and composition --for example, calf presence," said Dr. Martinez.
"If the whale(s) surfaces unexpectedly within 80 meters or 88 yards of the research vessel, we call it a 'near miss,' and view it as a situation when a faster moving boat or a less attentive captain could be involved in a collision," explained Dr. Martinez.
Through this study, Pacific Whale Foundation will be able to determine where surprise encounters and near misses are most likely to occur and what pod compositions are most susceptible to being involved in those situations. The data will be provided to NMFS and the sanctuary and will also support Pacific Whale Foundation's "Be Whale Aware" program, which educates local boaters about the best ways to handle vessels safely with the least amount of intrusion to the whales.
Since 2008, Pacific Whale Foundation has also held a permit from NMFS Office of Protected Resources Permits and Conservation Division to study ondontocetes off Maui and Lana'i.
Odontocetes are toothed whales and dolphins (humpback whales have baleen, not teeth). The current NMFS permit (LOC 18101) authorizes Pacific Whale Foundation's research vessel to approach, photo-identify, follow and make acoustic recordings of 15 odontocete species to estimate the abundance, distribution, site fidelity, behavior and association patterns of these animals. The animals studied include bottlenose and spotted dolphins, as well as pilot and pygmy killer whales. Surveys are also undertaken systematically along transect lines.
Among those animals that Pacific Whale Foundation has studied, and wishes to continue to study, is the Hawaiian insular false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens). These sleek, up-to-20-foot-long odontocetes were designated as an endangered species in 2012. Because false killer whales are covered under the Endangered Species Act, Pacific Whale Foundation was required to apply for a new permit from NOAA. That permit is currently pending. (Visit www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/10/29/2013-25458/marine-mammals-issuance-of-permits.)
"For most of these species, we urgently need updated knowledge on their conservation status, potential threats from human activities and a sound understanding of their ecology in Hawaiian waters," explained Dr. Martinez. "Data collected on these species are critical to contribute to sound management plans in the future."
During the summer and fall, Pacific Whale Foundation's researchers travel to Australia and Ecuador to study humpback whales there.
All year long, interns from around the world work alongside Pacific Whale Foundation's scientists, collecting and entering data in various databases, checking current and past datasets, and matching individuals to species-specific catalogues.
"Resights of known individuals help to piece together details about these animals over time," said Dr. Martinez.
He and other researchers from Pacific Whale Foundation will present information to the public about their work and recent findings at the second evening of Evening with the Experts on Friday, March 14, at 6 p.m. at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa in Ka'anapali. Admission is free.
Pacific Whale Foundation's research is supported by funds raised through the foundation's whale watches and ocean eco-tours.
To learn more, visit www.pacificwhale.org .