Summer Whalewatching in Hawaii: Part Four

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Summer Whalewatching in Hawaii: Part Four

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Aug 08, 2011

It’s hard not to make the comparison. The round glasses do it. But there’s also the mop of hair. The light complexion. The boyish quality about the man. And the gear. Not a wand or a broomstick but GPS devices; SLR cameras with long, telephoto lenses; Leica binoculars and access to the Navy’s 200-strong hydrophone array to acoustically identify marine mammals and plot their location off Kauai.

When it comes to marine life, Robin Baird is a wizard.

He can ID spinner dolphins from hundreds of meters away. Well, that’s easy. But how about rough-toothed dolphins at 10 feet below the surface? And above the surface, wings might as well be pectoral fins. “Bulwer’s petrel,” he called out. “Band-rumped storm petrel.” “Newell’s shearwater.” Even, “South polar skua.”

But not sharks. “What kind of shark is that?” someone asked when we discovered the fish mouthing a palm frond in the middle of Kaulakahi Channel, between Kauai and Niihau. “I don’t know,” Robin said. Another member of the research crew, Jess, offered, “A vegetarian shark.”

Even after 14 days of only one sighting of a “high priority species,” two days completely shut down due to a broken boat, unseasonably rough summer seas during their entire project window, this research team still managed to crack a joke. But the jokes were getting more and more dry.

Robin probably cringes at the comparison to Harry Potter--and he may not invite me back out on his boat because of it. I tried my darnedest to come up with a different way to describe him during his hour-long talk about False killer whales last Thursday night at Hanapepe Library. Admittedly, there are differences between the researcher with a Ph.D. in Biology and the orphan at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Like things that come with age—a relaxing of the middle and facial hair, as in a goatee. I could simply say that Robin wore green nylon shorts and an aloha shirt tastefully decorated with a fish motif. On his feet, he sported a pair of grey, crew socks and black New Balance running shoes—the same footwear he wore on the boat. The latter description may be factual but the former tells more about the man, don’t you think?

But, really, what’s more important is not who Robin looks or acts like. It’s what he has to share with us. He talks population structure, population size, movements, habitat use and behavior of Hawaii’s odontocetes. Odontocetes: The suborder of cetaceans, unlike humpback whales, that have teeth.

What’s he’s really shedding light on is the undiscovered—or little known—species swimming in Hawaii’s deeper waters. Forget the baleen whales—humpbacks—and Hawaii’s well-known spinner dolphins. Robin focuses his binoculars on beaked whales, short-finned pilot whales, killer whales, melon-headed whales, pygmy killer whales and false killer whales.

False killer whales. They look nothing like the black-and-white killer whales so well known in the Pacific Northwest and occasionally spotted in Hawaii. False killer whales are dark grey and grow to approximately 12 to 18 feet. Their skull and teeth, however, are similar to Orcinus orca and gave rise to the scientific name Pseudorca crasidens.

Some interesting tidbits about false killer whales:

They are long-lived—approximately 80 years.

They are slow to mature—females reach maturity at 10 years of age; males at 18.

o They calve in 6 to 7 year intervals.
o The females stop reproducing in their 40s.
o Their deepest known dive is 3,800 feet.
o Their longest known dive duration is 20 minutes.
o They cluster in three social networks.
o There are two populations: one insular and one pelagic.
o They cooperatively hunt and pass food among individuals before getting down to the business of eating. o They’ve even been known to offer fish to humans.
o They bring their food to the surface to eat, so much more is known about their diet than any other marine mammal in Hawaii. Their diet consists of skipjack tuna, ono, monchong, yellowfin tuna, mahimahi, swordfish and alua.
o They are fast swimmers. They can cruise from Oahu to Hawaii Island in two days, if they want. Their movement varies greatly from social group to social group.

Are you as fascinated as I am?

And while you might find false killer whales elsewhere in the world, the Hawaii group is genetically different. Researchers think they may have arrived in Hawaii 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, but it may have been longer ago. However they got here--from wherever--they evolved. Their genes changed. They are endemic to Hawaii.

In 12 years of research on the waters around Hawaii, Robin and his fellow researchers have encountered false killer whales on only 36 encounters. Estimates put the population of Hawaiian false killer whales at 450 to 700 some 20 to 30 years ago. At that time, during aerial surveys of marine mammals, false killer whales were the third most common species sighted. Now, they are the ninth. Population estimates number the species at 125 to 150 individuals today. Their effective population size is made up of an estimated—and shockingly small—46 breeding individuals.

So, what happened?

There are three main threats:

1. False killer whales are the most frequent by-catch in long-line fisheries. This is evidenced by a high rate of dorsal fin injuries that appear in the photo-identification pictures that Robin and his team take when they are on the water. Four to nine individuals are killed or seriously injured every year. Over an 11 year period, 124 have been killed or seriously injured.

2. False killer whales feed high on the food web, where the accumulation of pollutants, such as PCBs, DDTs, and flame retardants is the greatest. This increase in toxins in their system won’t kill false killer whales, but it does suppress their immune system, may impact reproduction. The toxins are also passed on to offspring.

3. The size of false killer whale’s prey base is shrinking. In the 1940s, for example, the average weight of yellowfin tuna was 140 pounds. Today, it is 40 pounds. This requires more effort for less reward.

Robin suggests the false killer whale will be Hawaii’s next endangered species. Last November, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed listing the Hawaiian insular false killer whale as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It has one year to make a final decision whether or not to do so.

What can we do?

1. Eat sustainably caught fish.
2. Don’t use pesticides or other household toxic chemicals.
3. If you fish, use circle hooks.

On the other hand, we could call up Harry Potter, ask him to whip up a spell and wave his magic wand. That would do it. But, somehow, I don’t think it’s going to happen. As always, it comes down to us--each and every single one of us--to do our part to keep our living room, our world, clean and orderly. So, pick up after yourself.

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