The Whale Trust research team spent 87 days on the water this season:
- Identifying 116 whales, with 12 confirmed matches to our catalog from previous years.
- Collecting 8 tissue samples for hormone analysis to help understand the mating and birthing cycle on the breeding grounds.
- Recording 20 different singers during three periods of the season – January, February, and March to study how the song changes over the season.
- Capturing hundreds of photographs and hours of video footage for analysis of natural behavior. Highlights of the season included a nursing calf with its mother and a single female joined by two competitive males.
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
So Great to See You Again!
Meagan Jones, PhD and Haley Robb
Our team was thrilled to have several matches this season including:
- A match with a female documented in the Alaska humpbacks catalog and last seen in 2004.
- A match to a humpback documented in the Gulf of Alaska in 2006.
- A match to our Whale Trust catalog of a female whale last seen in 2003 when she was paired with a male. This year, she was spotted as part of a competitive group!
Sing to Me
Jim Darling, PhD
During the winter a total of 20 different singers were recorded. The season was divided into three periods; early (January), mid (February) and late (March) with 6, 7, and 7 singers recorded in each period respectively. Our objective is to determine if there is more similarity of song within each period than between the periods. This study compares songs sung at different times in one location to determine if the song provides an acoustic identity to whales that are present at any one time.
Jim Darling and Meagan Jones
We collected tissue samples from 8 female humpbacks this season. We are interested in determining if the adult females paired with males were pregnant (and about to give birth) or not pregnant and about to mate. Pregnancy can be determined by analysis of the hormone levels in the blubber portion of the sample. On the one hand we will be surprised if these females are pregnant – while on the other hand, if they are not pregnant where are the mothers-to-be?
A Moment in Time
Flip Nicklin, Jason Sturgis, and Ralph Pace
A highlight of the season was a rarely observed interaction between a cow and calf. Both animals were very relaxed and the mother kept bringing the calf near the boat. While in the water documenting their behavior, we noticed the calf opening its mouth – not something that you see all the time. The calf then moved from the back of the mother up to her head and started opening and closing its mouth right beside her head. Then the mother completely stopped and the calf went to the nipple of the cow and began to nurse. You could see the calf tucked in under its mother and white milk seeping out from the sides of its mouth. It was magnificent to witness this first hand. Not only was it incredible to see nursing from a very comfortable cow and calf, it was remarkable to see the calf opening its mouth right in front of its mother. There are many possible interpretations of this behavior and we are left with more questions than answers.
After completing her Bachelor of Science in marine biology last year, Haley Robb joined the Whale Trust Research Team as an intern throughout the 2017-18 research season. It has been incredible to work with Haley and watch as she pursued her passion. She helped capture ID photos and documentation through extensive field notes. Haley shares, “From as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with marine life. As middle school student, I was able to attend Whale Quest (Whale Tales), a wonderful event put on by Whale Trust serving to bridge the gap between research and local communities. Whale Trust has been an extremely influential part of my decision to become a marine biologist. Through their educational programs, many opportunities were created for me.” Haley has spent the off-season working on data analysis and ID matching and plans to join the team again during 2018-19 season!
Flip Nicklin, Jason Sturgis, and Ralph Pace
We were out on the water in February and came across a single whale about 2 miles off Olawalu. We could see that the animal wasn’t too deep so we decided to slip over the side and get some footage and shoot some stills. After diving under the animal, we could see that it was a female. It is a rarity to see a female all by herself. We spent the better part of an hour with her when she was joined by a male with white pecs. There were some interesting social sounds being vocalized but it was impossible to tell who they were coming from. The white pec male had not been with her long when another male came in and displaced the white pec escort. Things then escalated into a mini-active group but the female was quite content to stay put and let the action revolve around her. It was wonderful to see that whole sequence from the beginning — not something that we get to witness very often.
Citizen Science Meets Research Photography
Meagan Jones, PhD and Cathy Maxwell, PhD (Whale Trust Board Member)
Happywhale tracks individual whales throughout our world’s oceans and believes that whale watching guides, naturalists, and passengers are vital to our understanding of whales. Scientists can only be in one place at one time; by harnessing the power of millions of whale watching enthusiasts, we can expand our scientific knowledge exponentially. Whale Trust is supporting the educational outreach of (Link) Happywhale by contributing to the online catalog. We love seeing matches come through and Whale Trust has now contributed more than half of the whale IDs in the catalog! Learn more and submit your photos next season at Happywhale.org!
Jim Darling, PhD and Beth Goodwin (Jupiter Foundation)
Whale Trust is pleased to be a partner on Jupiter Foundation’s HUMPACS project. An unmanned wave glider recently returned from an unprecedented 3-month mission to listen for humpback whales in the deep ocean basin between Hawaii and Mexico. The mission provided more than 2000 hours of recordings for analysis. Stay tuned for results and in the meantime, learn more about the wave glider on the HUMPACS page.