Posts made in August 2020

Recent Mother and Calf Pairs in Rarotonga

31 August 2020

Whale season has suddenly picked up over the past couple of weeks! After a slow start to the season, we can hardly go anywhere without seeing whales anymore!

On Saturday, August 22nd, Nan, Stan, and Katie spent the whole day driving around the island looking for whales from shore, since the sea ended up being rougher than expected. The whales tend to stick close to the reef in Rarotonga, so it’s not hard to spot them from land! We received reports from Mark and Shannon Harris in the afternoon of a mother and calf off their house in Arorangi. The calf was tail slapping repeatedly, and they could easily hear it from shore! As the mother and calf began traveling anticlockwise around the island, we caught up with them by Arorangi Wharf.

This was a beautiful, light-colored calf with a very white belly. The calf looked tiny compared to his mother! Nan estimated him to be around 3 weeks old, judging by the frequency of his breaths. He played around on top of his mother, who was carrying him carefully balanced on her head. She hung just below the surface of the water, so her baby could easily go up for a breath and come back down for a rest. The moment became even more beautiful when we noticed a group of spinner dolphins swimming around and bow riding the whales!

The team headed out on the water the next day to try and find this mother and calf again, and we ended up having a very exciting day at sea. After departing the harbour at 9:00, we hardly had a moment without whales! We quickly found a pair of adults just off Vaiana’s Bar & Bistro and an adult and juvenile pair off the Sea Wall, which were reported by fishermen in the morning. After getting some fluke shots and DNA samples from these animals, we continued on, determined to find the mother and calf.

It didn’t take long to spot the gorgeous white baby breaching off Crown Beach Resort! We were thrilled to find this mother and calf again and collect sloughed skin samples from them both. Nan was surprised by this calf’s motor skills at such a young age! He displayed all sorts of surface activity, such as breaching and pec slapping, which was impressive for such a young animal.

We found two more pairs of adult whales before we returned to the harbour, for a total of 10 humpbacks that we saw throughout the day. We only made it a quarter of the way around the island and received reports of 2 whales off Muri Beach (on the opposite side of the island) as we were washing down the boat, so we know that there were at least a couple more out there. It was an exciting, busy day for us! We had beautiful encounters and lots of surface activity, which resulted in one of the biggest pieces of sloughed skin we’ve ever seen! We were very excited to collect that huge piece of skin for DNA analysis.

 

Normally, we get excited to find pieces of skin

this big.

Today we found a piece of skin that was this

big!

We were really excited to collect this skin

sample!!!

We had yet another incredible day on the water on Wednesday, August 26th. The water was unbelievably flat, which made the whales especially easy to spot. We were very happy to find the same light-colored calf breaching off town! This young whale is growing more and more, gaining about a hundred pounds a day from his mother’s milk! The calf did lots of breaching for us, but while his mother slept underwater, the calf stayed close, tucking himself under her chin. Mothers and calves tend to stay close together to appear as one animal, as a way to protect the calf from predators. Though he was careful, this calf was clearly curious! He peeked his head out from underneath his mother to peer up at us.

After leaving this mother and calf, we found so many whales that we had trouble keeping track of them all. We saw at least 11 animals throughout the day. At the end of the day, we were thrilled to find another mother and calf pair off Arorangi! It was easy to tell that this was a different calf because it was very dark in color. While the first calf’s belly was very white, this one’s was entirely black! This mother and calf put on a wonderful show for us, breaching over and over, sometimes simultaneously.

Although you would think that mothers and calf pairs would interact, they are quite solitary, and we have never seen them come together here. How different it is from the behavior of dolphins, who put their babies together in a little nursery pod!

 

A Whale Named Chief

21 August 2020

The Cook Islands Whale Research team is very saddened by the death of Rarotonga’s Vaka Puaikura Fire Chief Barry Hill, who died Saturday morning (the 15th of August) at Rarotonga Hospital. His granddaughter Amy Koekemoer is an integral part of our team, and we promised to name the next whale that arrived to Rarotonga after this great man. Amy told Barry about this a few days before he died, and they both agreed that the whale should be named “Chief.”

On Saturday morning the whale research team headed out on the ocean, where we had a wonderful day with 4 whales. First we found a group of 3 smaller whales displaying surface activity. Two of the whales split off and zigzagged around, moving farther and farther offshore. We travelled along with them as they zipped around, blowing hard, surfacing side by side. These are signs of competitive behavior, so this pair appeared to be caught up in a battle. We could hardly keep up with these two, so we left them and headed back towards shore.

As we got back closer to the island, Nan received a text from Amy saying that her grandfather had called her just minutes before he passed. Amazingly, at that exact moment, a beautiful whale appeared off Hospital Hill. It was serendipitous and beautiful!

Shortly after we found this wonderful whale, a group of racing vakas came paddling in our direction. While Chief was down for a dive, Nan predicted that he would surface right next to one of the paddlers. Sure enough, Chief decided to pop up and startle the paddlers and race officials! The research team, paddlers, and officials cheered with delight as Chief came over to say hello. 

We spent Saturday afternoon with this beautiful whale and found him again the next day! Even though we didn’t have much of a lee on Sunday, the team headed out. We quickly found a smaller whale which we ID’ed, and then 20 minutes later Chief appeared next to our boat! His dives were about 18 minutes long as he rested, and every time he surfaced, he’d come straight towards us. He definitely recognized who we were. It always fascinates us how a whale knows if you come in “peace.” Sometimes Nan even asks if we could “please have an identification shot or a piece of skin for DNA” to help protect them. They know that we mean no harm.

Since we had the information that we needed on Chief (DNA samples and ID photos), we headed back closer to shore where the water was calmer. For 2 hours we went back and forth and found nothing. Just as we were about to head in, Marisa yelled in an excited voice, “breeeach!” The whale was a few miles away, but we decided to go straight out into the rough water. There were two whales breaching out there. We had one of the whales breach, almost clear out of the water, right next to the boat. He logged for a while and then came over and entertained us. It was Chief! He kept swimming right under the boat and then picking up his tail and practically putting it in the inflatable boat. He swam on his back and showed us his belly right next to the boat, he lifted his tail up, he swirled and twirled, and he scared the bejeezus out of everyone but Nan. With two GoPro’s going and one iPhone on video, the footage is hysterical and fun. What a treat we had with him, and we were very grateful that he did not knock our boat upside down! Of course, this is exactly what Barry Hill would have done as a whale, so we knew that Chief had taken on his spirit. We left him because we knew that he would never leave us, and we had a trip back with giant smiles on our faces. Fifteen minutes later, Matt confessed that the hair on his arm was still standing up straight and his heart was still pounding. When we attended Chief Barry Hill’s funeral Wednesday, a lot of the guests knew that this whale named Chief was out there, and it brought great joy to their hearts.

May you rest in peace, Vaka Puaikura Fire Chief Barry Hill, and may we enjoy your spirit through this very lovely and friendly whale.

A Day of Outreach, Research, and Adventure

31 July 2020

 

What an amazing, full day! It started at Te Ara Museum of Cultural Enterprise, where Stan and Nan met up with Mark and 15 Naval Policemen in uniform. Stan spent the first hour teaching them about language migration and guiding them through the Museum exhibiting culture of the Cook Islands. Nan took over with a Powerpoint Presentation, teaching them about the whales in our waters and the research that she has conducted in the past 23 years here in the Cook's. They asked incredible, well thought out questions, and we made great plans to all work together in the future. It is wonderful to know that the Kukupa crew is now part of the whale team and will report any and all sightings that they see within our 1.976 million square kilometers of EEZ. Thank you to the Te Kukupa crew for taking the time to get to know us and plan on future work to protect our country and our beautiful ocean!

Onto the ocean!

Leaving Te Ara mid-day and picking up Gracie Newman-Holt at school was the beginning of the second adventure of the day. Nan, Stan, Gracie, Marisa, and Katie headed out on the boat in search of whales. It was a beautiful, flat calm day after a week of lots of rain and wind. We first came across a group of 6 dolphins off Tamarind House. They seemed to be busy feeding and were not very playful today.

Soon after, Gracie spotted what she first thought was a dolphin. Noticing that it was alone and not coming up for breaths, she quickly realized that it was actually a shark! The animal was traveling along the surface of the water with the tip of its dorsal fins out of the water. It was a brownish-grey color. It seemed similar to a hammerhead shark. We found a great website by Lindsay Marshall and Monica Barone from Rome, Italy called "SharkFin Guide," which was helpful as we tried to identify this species. (Click the link to check it out!)

We continued clockwise around the island and came across a small splick of dolphin sperm and then a large splick of whale sperm! We collected samples from both so we can later analyze this DNA.

When we got to Avana Passage, we headed farther offshore to drop the hydrophone. There was a loud engine noise nearby, but we definitely heard parts of a whale song far in the distance! Of what we heard in the distance, it resembled some of the phrases from the song in 1999.

As we reached the southern tip of the island, crew member Marisa got a message from her friend Jilly, who was watching a whale just off Vaiana's Bistro and Bar! We were on the opposite side of the island from Vaiana's at that point, but we zipped around the island as quickly as we could. We soon came across not just one whale, but a mother, calf, and escort! At first sight of the escort's dorsal fin, Nan squealed that it looked somewhat like one of her favorite whales named Beastie. But after taking close-ups, not only was his dorsal jagged and cut up, but he had about 24 inches of a huge hump posterior to his dorsal fin, as if it were a formation of scar tissue. He didn't stick around for long, so we hope to find him in the next couple of days and get some better shots. Perhaps we will discover him singing, and we will have the honor of hearing the first clear recording of a whale song this year.

 

While the escort moved on, we continued to spend time with the mother and calf. It was a very young calf, which Nan estimated to be 12-14 days old. The mother was noticeably large with thick stores of blubber, which means that she must have known where the food was! (In humpback species, the female is larger than the male, and this female was particularly large). She also seemed to be a protective mother. Some mothers rest while they let their calves come up to the surface and breathe, since calves are unable to hold their breath as long as adult whales due to their lung capacity. Other mothers, like this one, come up to breathe more frequently along with their calves. We traveled alongside this beautiful pair as they moved clockwise from Vaiana's towards Avatiu Harbour. After watching the moon rise and the sun set, we were still out there in the dark trying to scoop into their footprints for skin. It was finally after 10:30 PM that we finally got the boat home and left the office. Full days are the best, and we hope to have lots more of them.