About Whale Research

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.

Lone whale plays with dolphins

17 June 2020

There has been one very lonely whale off of Rarotonga for the past couple of weeks.

He’s seen mostly logging at the surface, and despite his ability to be quite acrobatic, he seems to spend most of his time resting. After observing him from shore all day Saturday, Nan Hauser and her team headed out Sunday morning to see exactly who this whale was.

After spending all day Saturday just off Avatiu Harbour, Nan and her team found the whale off Arorangi, logging peacefully at the surface. After taking photo-IDs of the left and right side of his dorsal fin, the patterned ventral side of his tail fluke and his head, collecting a small piece of sloughed skin for genetics and stable isotopes, Nan made a comment that she wished that she could find him some dolphins to play with since he was the only humpback around. About two hours later, her wish became a reality. In Nan’s 30 years of studying whales, she has watched dolphins interact with humpbacks but the encounters were usually only a few minutes long. Dolphins sometimes bow ride the whale’s head and then quickly go their own way … so, this was an unusual and exciting event on Sunday. Our somewhat sad, young humpback, who appeared to be 3 or 4 years old, saw the pod of spinner dolphins and turned into a playful and silly youngster! The dolphins were as excited as the humpback was. It was a 25 minute encounter of playing, leaping, splashing, laying on his back with his pectoral fins straight up in the air, twisting, turning, rolling, and racing! What a joyful sight!! He continued around the island after his encounter and headed straight out into deeper water off the south side. Once he had traveled a couple of miles out, Marisa noticed dolphins in the distance as she pointed back towards the reef. Trying not to anthropomorphize the situation, Nan chuckled that he could probably hear the dolphins calling underwater and that he would turn back for more fun. Indeed he did just that!! He bee-lined right for the pod of spinner dolphins and again had a romper room session of wrestling, spinning and exhibiting pure fun! For a scientist, this was very unusual and intriguing behaviour! Nan was laughing and filming from the boat in awe!

Because of Covid-19, funding for research has been very limited this year. Nan’s team works for the love of whales without pay, but the research requires funding to pay for fuel, sample analysis, educational outreach, etc. Back in January, Nan met a new friend named Megan, who held a Facebook fundraiser in memory of her baby boy that had died. His name was “Smith.” Her contribution was an incredible surprise to the team and Nan had promised that the first whale of the season would be named after him. We could hardly wait to call her and tell her about this incredible whale now named “Smith.” It was a tearful conversation … Tears of joy and remembrance of a little child that never got the chance to play. It is perfect that this wondrous whale will swim the Oceans and spread his playfulness and joy of life across Oceania.

 

Dogs on a Boat

Unexpected Engine Problems!

5 May 2020

It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon. The sun was shining, and the sea was calm, so team members Nan, Stan, and Katie, along with four excited dogs, Juneau, Miko, Kali, and Jack, set out on the ocean in the 25-foot inflatable for an afternoon at sea. With our hydrophone, camera gear, and voice recorder onboard, we were hopeful that maybe we’d find some whales. Because the Cook Islands amazingly continues to remain COVID-free, we are very fortunate to still be able to get out of the house and spend a day on the water!

Before leaving home, we had had some trouble getting the engine started, but we thought we figured it out. At 14:00, we set out from the harbor without a problem and began heading north.

We traveled a few miles offshore and turned off the engine so we could drop the hydrophone, hoping to hear some sperm whales nearby. We put the hydrophone in the water at 15:30 and listened for five minutes but did not hear any whale sounds, so we prepared to continue onward. This time, however, the boat would not start.

Nan tried all of the tricks she had previously used to get the engine start, to no avail. We again inspected everything, wiggled some wires, cleaned some contacts, and took a close look at the engine. Nothing we did would get it started. So we all agreed, it was time to get out the paddles.

Fortunately, we had a kayak paddle on board, so we took the two halves apart and started paddling. Leaning over the pontoon with a short half-paddle was not the most comfortable or efficient way to paddle a boat to shore, but we made do with what we had. The three humans took turns paddling, while the four dogs lay on the bow of the boat, quite literally “sick as a dog.” This was the first time all four dogs had been out to sea, and it turns out that they all suffer from seasickness.

Couple on a Boat Heading Towards an IslandWe paddled and paddled, straddling the pontoons, arms burning, and backs aching. The island didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We were still a couple of miles away. While Stan and Katie paddled, Nan continued trying to get the engine started. We hoped that it would miraculously come back to life, but we kept paddling hard anyway. Eventually, that hope faded, and we accepted the reality of our situation: we would be paddling all the way home.

In order to make it back into the harbor, we would have to carefully navigate through a passage in the reef. Missing that opening would put us in danger of being caught in the breaking waves and smashed into the reef. Along our journey, we had to fight a current pushing us east of the harbor mouth. This was not the easiest vessel to steer with two miniature paddles, so we zig-zagged our way home.

Despite our fatigued muscles and fear of being stranded after sunset, we kept our spirits up. We powered onward with the help of chocolate-covered peanuts, joking about our misfortune and laughing at the poor dogs’ seasick faces. The dogs clearly were not having as much fun as we had hoped.

The time ticked by slowly. The sun gradually became lower in the sky, and we feared it would be sunset before we knew it. We had been paddling for about two and a half hours. Rarotonga’s mountains appeared slightly larger, so we knew we were getting closer, but we were still a mile or two away. We could make it home, but we would surely end up paddling in the dark. With our backs cramping up and blisters forming on our hands, we were ready for this to be over soon. Then suddenly in the distance, we spotted a boat zipping out of Avatiu Harbor. Nan jumped up on a bench and waved her half-paddle in the air, and finally, the fisherman came to our rescue.

We were delighted to see Nan’s friend Ngu Marsters, Couple on a Boat Steeringwho tied us to the back of his boat and gave us a tow back to the harbor. It was then that we realized how far we really were from the island. Considering that it took 30 minutes for us to be towed in, we certainly would have been paddling way past sunset. We were very grateful to have been spotted and rescued by Ngu before dark!

It was definitely not the kind of day we expected to have on the water, but as whale researchers, we always have to be prepared for the unexpected. It’s exciting to wake up in the morning, never knowing what the day will bring, and seeing what new adventure comes our way!

 

Couple on a Black and Red Boat Closeup of a Dog Side by Side Boats

Volunteer Next to Beached Whale

Ziphius cavirostris stranding (#2) at Muri Beach, Rarotonga Cook islands

Another rare beaked whale came over the reef a few days after we successfully rescued the first one. This whale was found washed up dead on the reef between Motutapu and Onearo. Marisa and Gracie waded out to the whale across the lagoon and collected complete measurements with skin samples! What a wonderful job they did! Hayes and Nan met them out there, and we all wandered back together as Hayes droned the whale in the lagoon for a National Geographic TV special. A few days later the volunteer veterinarians helped Gracie and Nan necropsy the whale. It was starting to decay, and the smell was atrocious. The crew from Te Ara Manu were amazing, and thank goodness they were there. Nan had started a new medication for her CRPS that day and explained that she was feeling like a total space cadet. Just in the knick of time to catch the tide, Elise and Jesse showed up and finished removing the head. They floated it to Avana Harbor where we had to wave down the crew of the Vaka to come help us lift it into the truck. They were all smiles until they saw all the blood and blubber, but they were good sports. Off Nan headed in the truck towards Takuvaine Valley. Upon arrival to the valley, Nan realized that she needed to get this head out of the truck by herself. She lay on her back and pushed with both feet until it slipped easily off the tailgate.

Two Rescuers Assisting a WhaleTeam of Volunteers

All was fine until a storm came a couple of days later. It was raining so hard that Nan went to make sure that the head was okay… but it wasn’t. It had started to float down the river. She ran up to the house putting on operating room scrubs and a raincoat. Brenna watched with the headlights from the truck as Nan jumped into the stream. The head had floated way down stream and Nan held onto it as hard as she possibly could, trying not to damage her right shoulder that was recently operated on. Soon the water came over the bridge. The power of the water swept Nan and the head down the stream for a good five minutes. She had to let go of the head with great sadness so that she wouldn’t drown. Grabbing onto branches from a tree, she climbed out on the shore and lay there in the dark. For the next 15 minutes Nan did an army crawl with one arm through the dark, thick jungle. It was pouring rain and all she could think about was centipedes and spiders crawling all over her. When she reached a patch of banana trees, she knew she was closer to home and started yelling for help. Brenna heard the cries and helped rescue her.

The next morning Nan and team member Stan searched the stream and unbelievably found the head all the way down by the ocean. It was pretty smashed up by that time, but Nan grabbed all her necropsy instruments and cut the rotting flesh off the head. She put it in the tall grass, away from people and animals, only to find it the next morning dragged out into the middle of a field, where the neighbor’s dogs were chewing on it like a big dog bone. Stan had an idea of filling one of the large garbage bins full of water, where it has been soaking for the past 6 months. Yes folks, it still needs to be analyzed! To be continued…

Woman Holding up Tools to Assist Whale

Finding the Cause of the Beached Whale

Team Surrounding Beached Whale

Beaked Whale Stranding

I love waking up in the morning and having absolutely no idea what new adventure might present itself. Exhausted from a very busy and intense whale season, we were out in bad weather yesterday hoping to find a singing male humpback. The calls started coming in at about 10:12 AM. “Hello, is this Nan? There’s a whale stranded on the reef at Muri Lagoon!!! Can you please come quickly?” The calls and texts just kept coming in concerning the urgency of this stranded whale. 20 minutes later a text from Josh Mitchell read that the whale was swimming around inside the lagoon! Having two boats on the water already, we drove full speed up along the reef and went into Avana Harbor. Luckily Tom and Lucy were there to pick us up! We had called the rest of our team to meet us at the whale ASAP. They were all there in no time.

Luckily the owners of Kura’s Kabanas rang us just as we were going past their driveway. They could see the whale in the shallow water of the lagoon from there. I looked out from the shore and could tell immediately that it was a beaked whale. It had turned on its side and was holding its breath. Whales, of course, are mammals and need to be able to breathe air just like us humans. We got to the whale as quickly as possible and turned it so that the blowhole was up. The whale was in dire distress. Amazingly, more and more people showed up and everyone swung into full action! Before I knew it we had a team of locals, Muri businesses, biologists, National Geographic filmmakers, school children, and tourists. We even had a dog out there! The determination of every single person involved was so impressive. To look at all of the healing hands on this very old (probably around 45 to 50 year-old) whale was a beautiful sight. Then there were those that were leading the way by clearing a path through the lagoon so that we could move the whale along towards the pass at Avana Harbour. Everyone was moving rocks and coral to prevent more damage to the whale!

The whale had washed over the reef up by Koromiri Motu. It swam until it was too shallow. When whales strand they go into a stress mode and often die from kidney failure and other organ malfunction . We had to keep this whale calm as everyone moved it a few metres at a time. thank goodness for the brainstorming of Paul Mangakahia who brought the proper cargo nets and carriers to lift this incredibly heavy whale!

The lagoon was full of sharp coral, and the whale was very cut up and bleeding in many spots. But with the efforts of a magnificent team and constant reassurance to the whale with hands, soft voices, and staring into its eye (it was blind in its right eye!), we eventually made it to the opening of the harbor!! Shrieks of joy came from all those involved!

We followed it out to the deep. It swam faster and faster as it realized that it was back into its own territory. Their were many tears of joy. This is the first time in my 30 years of helping stranded animals as part of my research that I have had a successful ending with a beaked whale stranding! We were well overjoyed to know that this great great great grandfather, whose species has been on this planet for tens of thousands of years, was back out in the deep water where it belonged. Thank you to everyone involved! The list is so very long. And a very special thanks to my team… Stan, Marisa, Gracie, George, Eva, Dave, Paul, Nicole, Brian, Adam, Dan, Hayes, Jeremy, Derek, Jaewynn, Tom & Lucy!  (more>>>>>)

 

More about this whale! A Ziphius cavirostris (Cuvier’s Beaked Whale):

In 2014, friends of mine used satellite-linked tags to track Cuvier’s beaked whales off the coast of California. They found that the animals dove up to 2,992 m (9,816 ft) below the ocean surface and spent up to two hours and 17 minutes underwater before resurfacing, which represent both the deepest and the longest dives ever documented by any mammal.

The whales’ rib cages can fold down to reduce pockets of air and decrease buoyancy.

Most studies of their diet have been limited to samples from the stomachs of stranded animals here in the Cook Islands and elsewhere. They appear to feed on cephalopods and small fish, including both bathypelagic and mesopelagic prey.

I will write more about this ancient whale in the coming days!

 

Fishing Boat Team

Floating Blob

Thanks to the fishermen, we were notified of a floating “blob”. It turned out to be a very, very dead whale! Dead enough to make our eyes water. From our GoPro footage we noticed the next day that 17 vertebrae were hanging underneath, wrapped in fibrous tissue and blubber… a biologist’s dream! With the help of Paul Mangakahia, our retrival mission was a success! Thank you to all the fishermen involved. Brendan, sorry your hook got caught in it, and that you had to cut it out while gagging! If you are wondering why we didn’t enter the water, it was because there were many sharks having a feed! Always an adventure to be had!

The Team in Oman

Adventures in Oman

Team members Nan Daeschler Hauser, Stan Wolfgramm, Natalie Barefoot, Hind the Saint of all Beings, and Colin Brown just spent time in Oman exploring possibilities of finding solutions for two endangered populations of humpback whales. Oman has the last endangered non-migratory population of humpbacks, while Oceania has the last endangered population of migratory humpbacks. Despite being on the opposite sides of the planet, we have many of the same issues and problems. We hope to learn together how we can protect these amazing whales.  

 

 

Glackma 2019

After traveling for more than 35 hours, crossing the Middle East, and losing her luggage, Nan Daeschler Hauser landed in Spain on Thursday (21 Feb). Nan is a special guest Speaker at the “Congresso GLACKMA Asturias – 2019.” The event is taking place in a coastal city in northern Spain, called Gijon.

She will be sharing her passion and her extraordinary work with more than 500 participants that are coming from all around Spain. After three decades of giving lectures and presentations around the world, this is the first time that Nan has been to Spain.

She is very excited to be here and so grateful to be part of this event. The event is organized by Carlos Caraglia. Carlos is a dedicated videographer and photographer that is committed to nature and climate change. His goal is to show the reality of climate change of the planet through amazing video and photography. Carlos is devoted and carrying out awareness-raising campaigns for the environment. This GLACKMA event brings together great collaboration between amazing people with inspiring stories.  

Thanks again GLACKMA for organizing the event and bringing together a great mix of professionals with important goals.

To watch a wonderful video about THE EARTH 360º GLACKMA Conference click here:   https://vimeo.com/324872179