Ever heard the saying, more heads are better than one? Here at MMRP, we strongly believe in this motto. As scientists, we cannot work in a vacuum. We benefit from engaging with other scientists, learning new techniques, and sharing new ideas which advances our science. Our work at MMRP is highly collaborative with every student working with multiple collaborators for their projects and helping their fellow labmates. For example, Martin Van Aswegen, a third year PhD student in the lab works closely with Alaska Whale Foundation and Pacific Whale Foundation in Alaska and Hawaiʻi to study the bioenergetic demands of humpback whales that migrate between their feeding and breeding grounds. Fabien Vivier, a fourth year PhD student, is working with Dolphin Quest to calibrate UAV measurements of dolphins to understand population age structure. Kirby Parnell, a third year PhD student at MMRP, is studying Hawaiian monk seal underwater acoustic communication and works closely with the NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) as well as international researchers from the Acoustic Communication Laboratory in France.
My PhD is no exception. My work is very collaborative in nature, and I would not be able to conduct my project without my collaborators at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Over the last year, I had the opportunity to work with one of MMRP’s collaborators, Cascadia Research Collective, a non-profit organization focused on research, education, and conservation of marine mammals. Although Cascadia is based in Washington, they conduct field research all along the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Mexico. Dr. Robin Baird has been leading field projects in Hawaiʻi for over 20 years. The focus of his work is to study the stock structure, diving behavior/ecology and conduct population assessments of odontocete (toothed whale) species within the Main Hawaiian Islands. I have had the incredible opportunity to join Cascadia’s team for three projects on different islands, each providing me with valuable experiences and allowing me to gain a new perspective on toothed whales in Hawaiʻi.
The first project I joined, was on the island of Lānaʻi in December 2020. Traveling to Lānaʻi during a pandemic had its challenges, but luckily we were able to safely conduct the fieldwork. I was part of the land-based survey team which coordinated with the boat-based team every day. Each morning, the other research assistant and I would drive our truck in 4-wheel drive through treacherous terrain in the dark to our land-based site on the cliff off the West side of Lānaʻi. It was an incredible site because we could see more than 30 km offshore (Figure 1). We set up a spotting scope and high-powered binoculars and would scan continuously throughout the day for often tiny specks in the distance indicative of animals (Figure 2). Can you spot the dolphins in the picture of the scope view (Figure 3)? Once we spotted an animal group, we then tried to identify the species. This can be challenging when animals may be far offshore and even with the eagle eye help of the scope, they can be very difficult to see. But by analyzing their behavior and often dorsal fin size and coloration, we were often able to share the most likely species with the boat team over the radio to see if they wanted to find the animals we had seen. On one day, I had the opportunity to join the boat-based effort and got to see short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), one of my research species, for the first time (Figure 4)! It was very exciting to see them resting/logging at the surface, a common behavior exhibited by that species during that time of day.
In the Spring, I joined the boat-based team (Figure 5) off the Kona side of Hawaiʻi. This is a very productive area containing many toothed whale species with characteristically calm waters because it is protected from the trade winds. The bathymetry is unique in that the shelf drops off close to the island so deep water species are often sighted relatively close inshore. This was a two-boat coordinated effort to cover more ground and increase the number of sightings.
Typical day in the life
The team wakes-up between 3am and 4am, we eat breakfast and prepare for a long day on the water. It is still dark as we load the truck with all the gear including huge pelican cases and coolers with the necessary food for the day. We then head to the boat harbor and load all the gear onto the two Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat’s (RHIB). The boats are trailered into the water, and we are on the water before sunrise ~ 5:45am. We head South, scanning 180 degrees continuously for any sighting of a fin emerging from the water or a dark body logging at the surface. It has been a few hours with nothing in sight until… Alas, I hear “Animals – 11’ o'clock – 500 meters - possible blackfish!”, from one of the research assistants, Kimberly, on the pulpit. Robin, stationed at the helm, quickly steers the boat toward the direction of the animals. As everyone is maintaining a 360-degree scan around the boat for other possible animals, Kimberly on the pulpit (with the best view on the boat), calls out crucial information regarding species, number of animals and animal directions of travel. Species confirmed - short-finned pilot whales! Once we get close to the animals, the field team has camera’s out and all you hear is rapid fire clicks as photos are taken of animals. The goal is to take photos of the dorsal fins of animals to identify individuals and add them to the photo identification catalogs, like my labmate Liah McPherson’s work with spinner dolphins off Oʻahu. This group is being cooperative, so once photos are taken of all or many of the animals in the group, Colin prepares his equipment for tagging the animals. Robin positions the boat, so the animal is parallel to the boat. Colin successfully deploys the tag and now the team can track the animal as the satellite tag pings off satellites to get geospatial data of where the animal is located. These data help in understanding animals’ distribution and movement around the Hawaiian Islands. Colin prepares the crossbow for biopsy sampling and as the animal surfaces next to the boat Colin has the crossbow pulled back and ready and releases the arrow (Figure 6a), it hits the animal (Figure 6b) and the animal quickly dives down in response. The arrow is retrieved and Robin inspects the metal tip...Success! A core of tissue is inside containing skin and blubber. The sample is placed in a cooler and once processed back at the field house, these samples will be sent to researchers including Kristi West at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) Marine Mammal Stranding Laboratory to study the genetics. After an 8-hour day on the water, we head back to the field house to process samples and input the data into the online database.
During this trip, there were a lot of “firsts” for me, it was my first time seeing 5 species including Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris), Pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata), and Dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima). The Mesplodon were so cooperative, so I had the chance to see them up close as they surfaced near the boat multiple times (Figure 7). A huge highlight was seeing so many pilot whales, one of my study species. On one day we had 6 pilot whale sightings! They are one of my favorite species and seeing their spyhopping behavior is always exciting for me. On this trip, I went the farthest offshore I have ever been. One day, the conditions were so good that we were able to go ~68 km offshore and even that far offshore the water was glassy. It was amazing to be so offshore and so far away from any land - the Big Island looked tiny and far off in the horizon. I also had a personal victory and overcame something huge for me – seasickness. I have always gotten VERY seasick. On this trip, especially in the first few days, I was definitely spending a lot of time throwing up over the side of the boat but by the second week, I got my “sea legs”, and I not only was able to keep food down but I even felt good enough to spend some time on the pulpit (which is often one of the worst parts of the boats to be on because it moves vertically a lot especially in large swell, but has the best view).
In August, I joined the team for a field season off Kauaʻi. It was exciting to be involved with this project because the team was working collaboratively with the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) Barking Sands acoustics team. Off the West side of Kauaʻi there is a large hydrophone array, Marine Mammal Monitoring on Navy Ranges (M3R) system with 219 bottom mounted hydrophones that the Navy uses for detection, classification, and localization of sounds of marine mammals and naval ships. Every day once we got on the water and were underway, Robin called the acoustics team over the radio to see if they had any detections on the array. If they had a detection to species level, they might tell Robin on hydrophone “A” we have rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis).
My highlight from the trip was on Day 8. We had been “on effort” (in survey mode) for about 10 minutes when we had our first sighting…. False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens)! I was so excited and couldn’t believe that it was before 6am and we already had a sighting, nonetheless the priority species of Robin’s research and my second research species. It was my first time seeing false killer whales in the wild! I was recording data and had my camera out taking photos for photo identification of individuals. We stayed with the group for over 2 hours. They were widely dispersed and so we slowly made our way through all the individuals. Once we got photos of all the animals in a specific group, we moved onto the next group to take more photos with the goal of capturing as many individuals as possible. Although I was dripping wet because of the Beaufort 4 conditions, and my location on the port side, I couldn’t contain my excitement! Suddenly, we heard the animals whistling so loudly you could hear them through the hull of the boat. False killer whales produce very distinct whistles and it was incredible to experience without a hydrophone even being in the water. After leaving the group, our next sightings were pilot whales – both of my study species in one day! My salty, wet self was very happy that day as we returned to the harbor and there were definitely smiles all around.
Kauaʻi was beautiful - we had incredible sunrises (Figure 8), the constant sight of Lehua Rock to the West and amazing views of the Nā Pali coastline when we surveyed up North. A record number of tags were deployed off that island for Cascadia which was incredible. We were led to multiple groups of the animals from the acoustics team. Seeing this cooperation between the boat based team and M3R was neat as it shows that the combination of acoustics and visuals is essential for finding animal groups and a successful season. We had many sightings of melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) traveling in groups of over 100 animals (Figure 9a). The most common species sighted was rough-toothed dolphins, an odd-looking species that almost looks prehistoric (Figure 9b,c). We also saw many neonates (newborns) (Figure 9a,b). The acoustics team led us to a cooperative group of Blainville’s beaked whales and Colin deployed a couple tags which was exciting because with Navy exercises occurring in the preceding weeks, these tagged animals may indicate the potential effects of their movement during these exercises. We also had bottlenose dolphin sightings (Figure 9d) which is vital to recent research efforts suggesting the decline in Tursiops abundance in Hawaiian waters.
I learned valuable skills and knowledge from assisting Cascadia’s research efforts and these experiences were instrumental in advancing my knowledge for my own PhD research. I have not only learned several new field skills but I have also directly observed the behavior of my study species. Collaborations provide valuable learning experiences for students and researchers. I am grateful for the collaborative approach my lab takes to science and look forward to continuing to foster and strengthen relationships with collaborators in the future.
All research activities were conducted under NOAA NMFS Permit 20605. Special thanks to Dr. Robin Baird and the awesome research team I had the pleasure of working with including Kimberly Wood, Colin Cornforth, Shannon Vasquez, Andrea Gutierrez, Jordan Lerma, Michelle Nason and more! Thanks to all the volunteers that I had great conversations with on the water!