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.