Summer Whalewatching: Part Three

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Summer Whalewatching: Part Three

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Aug 03, 2011

"One animal. Twelve o'clock. Fifty meters," Renee called out. She had briefed me earlier on my duties and stressed the three things that Robin--captaining our Wild Whale research vessel--was adamant about. He wanted to hear 1) animal species or, at the very least, its behavior, such as splash, blow, breach; 2) location on the clock, using the boat's bow as 12:00 and the stern as 6:00; and 3) distance from the boat in meters.

"Steno," Robin, research lead for Cascadia Research, said, as we neared, and put the boat in neutral. Steno is short for steno bredanensis, dolphins reaching 8+ feet in length and 350 pounds in weight. They have characteristically large pectoral flippers and are not to be confused with the more popularly known stenella longirostris longirostris, or spinner dolphins.

Then, bobbing in a 27-foot Boston whaler in the middle of the Kaulakahi Channel between Kauai and Niihau, everyone went into action.

Renee opened a waterproof Pelican case and grabbed a camera with a telephoto lens. She gave another to Morgan, a fellow spotter. Sitting next to Robin, Elisa balanced a clipboard in her lap as the boat rocked, and she held yet another camera with a telephoto lens to her face. From the stern, Daniel emerged, making the bow a bit crowded. He reached for the crossbow lashed to the railing and loaded an arrow.

Steno bredanensis is the scientific name. Rough-toothed dolphin is its common one. The Latin refers to the cetacean's narrow snout. The English describes the texture of its teeth. And while a poster published by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries says that this is the most common dolphin species in the Hawaiian "200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone," there is relatively little known about it.

Stenos are not one of the "high-priority species" that Cascadia Research was hoping to adorn with a device much like a miniature cell phone antenna for your car. But Renee was happy about it.

Renee is a student at Oregon State University. She first encountered steno in French Polynesia while she was researching other marine mammals. And they kept appearing, near humpback and melon-headed whales. They seemed to be curious animals. When Renee inquired about the species, she received mostly shrugs and head-shaking in response to her questions. About all anyone could tell her was that the species was found in deep, tropical waters around the world. So, Renee herself grew curious.

"In target," Daniel called out, as cameras whirred, and he tripped the trigger. It all happened so quickly. The dolphin didn't even flinch. The arrow bounced off the animal and floated away. Daniel raced to the stern, and I followed. He grabbed a skim-net--the kind you see at swimming pools--and scooped the arrow out of the water. And, finally, here's where I came in. The tip of the arrow contained a tissue sample from the dolphin--about the size of a pencil eraser. I unscrewed the arrow's tip and wrapped it in tin foil. I wrapped that tinfoil like a burrito and dropped it in a Whirl-Pak, a sterile plastic sample bag. I labeled the bag with a sample number, time and species code, and I dropped it in a cooler.

I had finally made it out of the harbor with Cascadia Research, after my third try. The boat didn’t break this time, although an engine alarm beeped obnoxiously.

Have you ever watched a long tennis match? Say one involving the game's greatest baseliners like Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi or Chris Evert. That's what my entire day was like, a full seven hours--scanning the ocean's surface 180 degrees, from right to left, left to right, right to left, left to right, right to left, left to right.... Taking the ocean's rising and falling with my knees, I loved every minute of it. But this was my first day on the water, and I didn't have it all down-pat. I left my hat, sunglasses and camera in the hold. I didn’t know the place to stash a water bottle in the bow. I forgot my camera in my backpack. I was the newbie.

Underwater photograph of two Hawaiian spinner dolphins by Bo PardauWe logged five or six encounters with different groups of rough-toothed dolphins and one with spinner dolphins. We took nine tissue biopsies—six from rough-toothed dolphins and three from spinners—for toxicology and genetic studies. The photographers took more than thousand images to add to a photo-identification database.

We even deployed two satellite tags on two stenos, making a total of three sporting this communications device. They could be the first free-ranging rough-toothed dolphins in the world to be tagged with these devices. The tags will relay detailed information on the movement patterns of this species, adding to the slim body of steno knowledge.

According to Renee, the genetic data that is beginning to emerge shows us that there are at least two steno populations in Hawaii, and they may socialize in small groups within a larger group. When Hawaii’s genetic data is compared with rough-toothed dolphins in French Polynesia, there is some cross-over in the gene pool. But, at this time, it’s not known who colonized whom. That is, whether some animals from the Hawaii population went south or vice versa.

Toward the end of our day, the boat’s radio crackled again. It was someone from the Navy alerting us to possible beaked whales in the area. One of the goals of the research underway by Robin and his team was to gather information on the ways these marine mammals may react to Navy sonar exercises and, so, the whole time we were on the water, Robin was in touch with Navy researchers from the Marine Mammal Monitoring on Navy Ranges (M3R) program, who used the navy’s hydrophone range—much like a fish finder—to locate and identify animals.

Beaked whales—as in Cuvier’s and Blainville’s—ranked well on the “high priority list.” Beaked whales would be cool. Beaked whales would be great on which to deploy satellite tags. Beaked whales would be a first for me. But the possible beaked whales turned out to be steno bredanensis. Again.

Here's my plan for tomorrow: 1) Strap my portable camera in an underwater housing and hang it around my neck. 2) Put my hat on and hang sunglasses around my beck before I leave the house. 4) Slip a tube of lip balm with SPF in my pocket. 5) Stash a water bottle in the cubby on the bow of the boat. 6) Stuff my waist pack with snacks.

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