About Whale Research

Cetacean Vibrations: Sexual Bubble Stimulation in Humpback Whales

It’s no secret: animals have sex, just like we do.

Biologically, sexual reproduction is defined as a process by which two organisms of differing sexes combine genetic information to create new offspring. This shuffling of genetic information fosters genetic diversity, which allows species to better adapt to their changing environmental circumstances. If a gene is beneficial in an organism’s survival, then that organism is more likely to survive, reproduce and pass on the gene: the faster antelope is more likely to outrun the lion. The opposite is true for disadvantageous genes: the slowest antelope is more likely to be eaten by the lion.

But, in cetaceans, the story of sex doesn’t end with that stale, biological definition. In fact, that’s just the beginning.

Like humans, cetaceans not only have sex, but they experience sexual pleasure. A 2022 study published in Current Biology suggests that female bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) possess anatomically functional clitorises that are important for mating and play behaviors. Female bottlenoses often stimulate each other’s clitorises in sexual interactions, and the position of the clitoris indicates that it is likely stimulated during male-female reproduction.

Unlike dolphins, no clitoris-type physiological structure has been found in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Instead, female humpbacks have a genital slit accompanied by two mammary slits on either side, which are used for nursing calves. However, female humpbacks’ lack of clitoris does not equate to a lack of pleasure: a 2022 study published in Aquatic Mammals suggests that female humpbacks may purposely position their mammary glands and genital slit above bubbles blown by male humpbacks. This finding indicates that females may experience pleasure from bubble stimulation.

Bubble behaviors have been documented in most types of whales and provide a variety of different functions; bubbles are formed during stressful situations, in aggressive male-male competition, in play, in aversion tactics, and in foraging situations. However, bubbles used for sexual pleasure are a novel concept.

Primary investigator Meagan Jones and her co-authors at the Whale Trust documented this behavior during the breeding season between 2000 and 2003 in Au’au Channel in West Maui, Hawaii. Over the course of a fourteen-minute video, three males were observed producing bubbles directly under a female’s genitalia twelve separate times. Instead of fleeing, the female seems to accept these bubbles, exhibiting behaviors such as “rolling toward, arching, or slightly lifting and/or moving her tail above the bubble releases”.

Jones et al. propose two possible explanations for these novel behaviors. On one hand, the authors hypothesize that these bubbles could serve a pre-sexual purpose – in other words, foreplay. Alternatively, the authors propose that the observed female could have been in late pregnancy and the bubbles could stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone essential for giving birth. It is also interesting to note that in humans, oxytocin is also released during orgasms. At the end of the paper, Jones mentions potential research into the hormonal state of the female whale receiving this behavior. Understanding the female’s reproductive state (ie if she was in late pregnancy) would elucidate the context of the behavior.

Prior to this publication, no research has been published on the use of bubbles in male-female sexual interactions in humpback whales. However, this season at Cook Islands Whale Research, we have observed this behavior in humpbacks in the waters around Rarotonga and have captured it on camera: Following a group of one female and two male escorts for over two hours, we observed the primary male escort blowing bubbles under the genital slit of the female multiple times. She spent a large amount of surface time in a side-on position, seeming to receive the attentive behaviors of the males, which included bubble streams and bursts.

Though we clearly cannot yet draw conclusions from our observations without further data collection and analysis of these behaviors, Jones et al.’s profiling of this behavior provides an exciting new framework with which to analyze our data and potentially build on her hypotheses.

This line of research provides another interesting parallel between human and whale behaviors, demonstrating again why we connect with them so deeply and why they deserve our respect and protection.

Picture of male humpback (center frame) blowing bubbles under female (top left)


1 Brennan, P. L. R., Cowart, J.R., & Orbach, D. N. (2022). Evidence of a functional clitoris in dolphins. Current Biology, 32(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cob.2021.11.020

2 Bagemihl, B. (1999). Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Macmillan).

3 Jones, M. E., Nicklin, C. P., & Darling, J. D. (2022). Female humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) positions genital-mammary area to intercept bubbles emitted by males on the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Aquatic Mammals, 48(6), 617-620. https://doi.org/10.1578/am.48.6.2022.617

4 Moreno, K. R., & Macgregor, R. P. (2019). Bubble trails, bursts, rings, and more: A review of multiple bubble types produced by Cetaceans. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 6(2), 105-126 https://doi.org/abc.

A Day in the Life of a Whale Biologist… sometimes never directly involves whales.

From left to right: Gloria, Ella, Francesca, & Gustowo

I hate to burst your bubble, but despite my previous blog posts in which I appealingly glorify my encounters with whales, I must admit that in my month of being in Rarotonga, I have only been out on the boat with the whales a handful of times. But this is not due to a lack of want or a lack of effort.

As a new research assistant, I entered this experience with a grossly idealized idea of what consisted of whale conservation work. In my head, I envisioned endless days on a beautiful blue expanse of open ocean, watching whales breach and play around me, while being surrounded by a group of beautiful, women scientists. I expected work in the form of long, tiresome days, raw sunburns, and data analysis. While some days are as I imagined, they consist of only half of the story.

The other fifty percent consists of a grind. Every day at Cook Islands Whale Research, the team (which is, in fact, a group of hot women scientists) and I are met with a series of simultaneously unexpected and colossal challenges that seem, at best, tangentially related to whales, and mostly consist of seemingly random tasks of manual labor. These undertakings range from fixing car belts to hauling blue whale vertebrae to renovating and decorating the Paradise Inn to be a whale education center to the morally uncomfortable duty of debt collection.

The Moral of the Story: Being a whale biologist requires being a jack of all trades.

And no one is more qualified for this job than Nan Hauser. Since her arrival on the island, Nan does not quit. Without fail, she seizes the day by attacking the projects at hand (which, to me, seem never-ending and excessively out-of-my-depth), no matter how massive, miniscule, or technical the operation. And her gung-ho, go-get-it, DIY attitude inspires all of us around her to work just as hard. Despite a to-do list that, like a persistent garden weed seems to grow longer and more convoluted each day, we consistently end the day exhausted and having accomplished a million things.

So far, I have acquired skills in: cooking, gardening, interior design, tire replacement, graciously pleading for funding, and power washing various types of surfaces. While these are not skills I expected to gain, they are ones that I have learned are just as important to whale biology as the scientific ones that accompany them. And these lessons have been paramount in my development as a research intern; whale biology is not smooth sailing (literally). Commitment to whale conservation requires you to be a mechanic, a renovator, a gardener, and a laborer.

I have always wondered why more people don’t pursue careers in cetacean conservation. It is undeniable that humans experience an exceptional connection to whales. Perhaps it is due to their intelligence, sociality, and altruistic nature that mirrors our own; maybe whales remind us of those qualities that reveal the best of our humanity, which so often become lost within ourselves. Or perhaps whales represent a promise that wild spaces can still exist. Whales were once viewed as economic jackpots and therefore hunted into near extinction to be made into soaps, oils, animal feed, and corsets. Now, due to massive conservation efforts, humanity’s conception of whales has morphed into that of an embodiment of pristine nature, and many populations have since recovered. Whales, now, represent an escape from our built landscape into the majesty of true, untouched Nature. They are a conservation success story.

But, the Fact of the Matter is: Whale conservation is really hard work.

No one recognizes the grunt work behind an operation like Cook Islands Whale Research. Its dirty, hands-on nature is so easily disguised behind a snowy idealization of whales, and once revealed, tends to deter people from the work. But, for the people I have the privilege of working with, every task, no matter how menial it seems, is completed without complaint and in the name of the whales. And this is the nature of a true conservationist.

The Most Important Lesson: If you want it, you must make it happen.

The Unsung Heroes Behind CIWR This Season So Far:

Nan Hauser

Katherine Waru


Julia Graeter

Gloria Harvey

Ella Ruland

Francesca Radford

Callie Cho

Nico Ransome

Disha Kabra

Travis Horton

Katherine and Callie

From left to right: Julia, Nan, Ella, Francesca, Callie, Gloria

New Study Examines the Effect of Vessel Noises on Humpback Whale Singers by Callie Cho


As anthropogenic noise continues to increase in our oceans, animals who employ acoustic communication have become increasingly challenged to make their sounds heard and understood by other members of their species. This artificial noise interferes with behaviors essential to individual and species survival, such as acts of courtship, displays of dominance, communication of resources, feeding behaviors, and navigation.

One animal whose form of communication has become increasingly encroached upon by anthropogenic noise is the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). While it is not completely known why male humpbacks sing, this behavior mainly occurs in breeding grounds and migratory corridors, indicating that it is important for comparing and communicating fitness to females and to other male singers. Understanding the effect of human-created noises such as boat sounds on humpback song is essential in advancing productive conservation initiatives.

Humpback whales naturally adapt their singing intensity in response to the given amount of naturally occurring noise in their environment; noises such as wind, water, and reef sounds. The unconscious act of adjusting vocal effort in the presence of other sounds is known as the Lombard effect and is present in many acoustically communicating animals. However, it is unknown if the Lombard effect is present in singing humpback males in relation to vessel noise.

A recent study conducted by Girola et al. (April 2023) at the University of Queensland sought to answer this question by studying eastern Australia’s singing males’ Lombard response to ambient wind noise as compared to wind noise accompanied by vessel noise. The scientists hypothesized that if the males’ Lombard effect accounted for vessel noise as well as wind noise, then their singing would change accordingly in the presence of a vessel as compared to when no vessel was present.

In September and October of 2010, Girola et al. recorded humpback song in Peregian Beach, a migratory corridor for humpbacks moving southbound towards Antarctica from breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef. The researchers employed the use of four stationary buoys to record singers within 5km of the designated study area, and they methodically drove a vessel along an established route. Recordings disturbed by the sounds of rain, other vessels, or loud fish choruses were excluded from the study to isolate the sounds of wind and the research vessel noises.

After extensive song unit analysis, the authors concluded that while humpback singers adjust their songs according to wind levels, they do not do so for vessel noises. In other words, the Lombard effect is present in response to varying levels of wind noise but not present in response to vessel noises. While this result suggests that other coping strategies could be at play, no other ones have been scientifically studied.

In conclusion, this study reinforces the importance of understanding the effect of anthropogenic noises on humpback whale behavior. Knowing that singers do not employ the Lombard effect when accounting for vessel noise opens doors for more studies to be done on alternate coping mechanisms. This result could also suggest that whales do not, in fact, have a fixed strategy in place to deal with this type of anthropogenic noise, considering their lack of song adjustment in response to vessel noise. If the latter is true, then anthropogenic noise could pose a detrimental problem for humpback whale vocalization and its associated behaviors.

Specifically in relation to our research, the waters around Rarotonga are part of the migratory corridor of the last population of endangered migrating humpback whales in the world. In these waters, humpbacks opportunistically breed and birth their young. Therefore, conservation initiatives in the Cook Islands should aim to control vessel noise in proximity to singing males. It is imperative to understand the effects of vessel noise to best protect these amazing animals.


1 Payne R, McVay S. 1971 Songs of Humpback whales. Science 173, 585-597. (doi: 10.1126/science.173.3997.585)

2 Dunlop RA, Cato DH, Noad MJ. 2014 Evidence of a Lombard Response in migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 136, 430-437. (doi:10.1121/1.4883598)

3 Whitlock, J. (2012). Understanding the Lombard Effect. New Zealand Acoustics, 25(2), 14–17.

4 Girola E, Dunlop RA, Noad MJ. 2023 Singing humpback whales respond to wind noise, but not to vessel noise. Proc. R. Soc. B 290: 20230204. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2023.0204

Meditation on Time with Whales at Sunset By Callie Cho

Photograph by Callie Cho

Time passes differently on the open ocean, a passive presence that lulls in and out of one’s consciousness with the rhythms of swells. Quiet moments on still water can drag on: time looms over you like a vampiric presence, elongated by the possibility of a whale-induced ripple. Eyes become strained, focused, and red-rimmed; backs and butts sit torqued between pelican cases; core muscles remain tensed and fight the rocking of your boat. And you, the observer, feel completely embodied in your discomfort. Minutes become hours and become a persistent feeling of shifty anticipation.

But, in an instant, time can disappear again: Maybe, a whale, inhabiting an otherworldly dimension, passes directly under your boat. Its shadow unveils the edges of your plane of existence, offering you a glimpse into the dimension beneath your own.

Curious, you free dive into the deep blue, descending from one plane into the next. Your ears crackle and pop, adjusting from a life of ease in a visual existence to life in a purely auditory one. Sound travels four times faster in water than in air. You become immersed in a womb of song: alien whines and groans, patterned and repeated in a manner that envelops and penetrates you, evoking a sense of profound longing, an anguish that makes your toes curl.

Returning to the buoyant white speck that constitutes your plane of reality on this ocean, you humbly present the humpback’s song, a treasure that makes your heart tremble. The song recalls the sea in its romantic melancholy.

Then, from above. The sun burns the sky from blue to purple to orange, a spectacle that rivals the majesty of the whales below. The idea of nature as peaceful and serene is a gross misconception. Nature exists in constant competition with itself, and tonight’s performance is no exception: A calf, not ten days old with a dorsal fin still flopping to its side, briefly eclipses the sun in an offensive play consisting of breaches and tail slaps. The sun responds by painting wave crests in a brilliant shade of hibiscus pink.

The battle rages on. You, the observer, are helpless but to marvel in its heat and divinity.

As the light finally fades, the horizon disappears along with it, hazy and greying into itself. The sun’s last laugh: an absence of light signifying the closing of the curtains.

As you head home, the cold, falling darkness encourages the sea spray to sting your cheeks. Suddenly, the whales respond with an encore: a breach that forces the day’s last remaining photons to reflect ghostly white on the sea foam. And, even more astounding, the triumphant sound of water parted by a surprising and violent crash. The final act.

To receive and to revel.

Photograph by Julia Grater, whale researcher in cook islands on a whale project

Photograph by Julia Grater

Girl on a whale research project, ocean, rarotonga

Journal Entry of a Whale’s Ungrounding by Callie Cho

You’d spent five hours on the boat, moving with and observing the behaviors of whales off the coast of Rarotonga. Very little water had been consumed. Your soggy egg sandwich had been scarfed down in haste, between futile attempts to collect the skin samples of three fighting male bulls. Participation in the demolition of a 2-liter tub of chocolate ice cream had, in turn, demolished your digestive tract, and you were feeling the repercussions.

You had watched, enthralled by the ecstasy of the presence of a wild new life, as a newborn calf joyfully breached along the reef break; its mother, protective and warding off the advances of an escort. The day had been long and windy, the only sun glinting through patches of clouds and reflecting pensively off inky blue water. It was beautiful, though like most beautiful things, it provided little warmth. Your guard down — tired, cold, and satiated by a full day’s work — you begin your journey back to port.

Nature always chooses to astonish when you least expect it: A whale, rising ethereally from the sea’s unbothered surface, careening itself heavenwards, the tip of its cranium seeming to graze the blazing edge of the sun — time tends to freeze for moments like these. One, two. And then, crash a gloriously auditory experience: giant cymbals of blubber on water create a cacophony that pinches you (the observer) back into reality’s timeline, just as the whale is sucked back into its physical form from its moment of inarticulable majesty by the sheer weight of its gravity. A sinking mass of chaos, pulling you down with it.

But remember, you are a researcher. Remember, while you remain slightly dislocated from your little crux of reality, you must find footing in the scientific method. Its construct provides mild comfort, a framework through which to understand this wonderous experience and consolidate it into part of the human experience. When a whale surfaces, the water where it had been becomes altered – smoothened — by its movement, leaving what is known as a footprint. You are looking for skin: little flakes that the whale had dislodged, just as you had been.


So, you jump into the expansive teal blue water, armed with a sample net and a snorkel. Swimming in the open ocean is akin to moving through a dimensionless space: there are no boundaries or landmarks, and again you feel yourself becoming increasingly disembodied, uprooted from time the further you swim. Flat, blue expanse consumes you, and not even the light seems to provide dimension. It’s terrifying and thrilling.

And then, in the footprint, skin falls like snow with nowhere to land. Grey and white flecks speckle your vision and a feeling of ecstasy ripples through your body. There, a large flake falls slowly towards nothing. But you will not let it escape you, this skin is grounding. This skin is important. This skin is a relic. Diving down net-first, you successfully collect it, sacrificing breath for skin — the burning in your lungs signifying a pilgrimage – this must be what it feels like to touch the shroud of Turin; the staff of Moses; the statue of Shiva.

You breach the surface of the water, human and holding the only tangible evidence of a fleeting transcendence.


Happy Researcher on whale research project

The research team feeling happy after a hard day’s work

Bermuda Whale Song Project


On March 24th, 2022, we spent our first day on Challenger Bank in Bermuda! We collected whale photo ID’s, sloughed skin samples for DNA, drone footage displaying behavior of a competitive group of 5 humpbacks and a perfect 2022 humpback song from beginning to end.



This is part of a marine acoustic study that focuses on Bermuda, its coral reefs, seamounts and surrounding Sargasso Sea as a field station and platform for passive acoustic monitoring. This addresses critical data gaps and knowledge to improve conservation and management of Bermuda’s marine systems. 

This study investigates: 

  • Cetaceans (whales & dolphins)
  • Critical habitats
  • Current and proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s)
  • Fisheries
  • Possible threats associated with anthropogenic noise
  • Protected species
  • Reefs

Our initial focus is to record whale vocalizations in Bermuda’s waters where humpback whale song was first “discovered” in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our research will produce updated humpback whale occurrence and song dynamics in Bermudian waters. We will compare the behavior and ecology of humpback whales in the North Atlantic (Northern Hemisphere) to the South Pacific (Southern Hemisphere) and eventually on a global level.  Project co-founder Nan Hauser has twenty-three years of whale song collected in the Cook Islands (South Pacific) to use for comparison. www.whaleresearch.org. Our collaborators include scientists involved in the original Bermuda whale recordings.  

By comparing newly collected data with historical records, we can observe changing patterns and how marine life may be impacted by climate change. 


  • Build local capacity for ongoing participation in this project
  • Conserve migratory marine mammal species & reef associated communities
  • Document effects on mating & birthing
  • Engage the Bermudian community to focus on marine biodiversity in their own backyard
  • Enhance established methods for recording the sounds
  • Ensure long-term management of biodiversity 
  • Establish a baseline dataset as the start of a longer-term time-series
  • Identify individual whales
  • Leverage and continue to develop latest technologies
  • Monitor prey movements & abundance 
  • Observe changes in migratory corridors & pathways
  • Record shifts in migratory patterns 
  • Use AI “Artificial Intelligence” for acoustic, image and biological sample analysis

Teaching Local Students

29 March 2020

For the last five weeks, Nan and Katie have been visiting local primary school Apii Te Uki Ou on "Funky Fridays" to teach a group of curious students about marine science and the Cook Islands' humpback whales. We met with the same small group of students each week and had a blast getting to know each other and talking about our mutual love for the ocean.

We discussed humpback whale anatomy, behaviours, altruism, migration, feeding, threats and conservation. We talked about all about ocean conservation, other species that interested the students, climate change and what we can do to protect the marine environment.

We took the kids down to the beach behind the school, where we looked out at the ocean and watched crabs on the sand. When humpback whale season resumes this year, we hope that they will be looking out for whales from this same spot!

We have loved listening to the kids talk about the things that excite them about the ocean. They all have their own stories and experiences in Rarotonga's lagoon or out on the sea. It is amazing to see how observant and curious they are about their local environment. The kids expressed interest in continuing to learn and care for the ocean and its species, and we hope that they hold onto this curiosity.

It is easy to become complacent and neglectful of the world around us. If we all keep this curiosity and continue to explore, learn and cherish our local environment and animals, we can create lasting change.

In our final session, the kids worked together to write a poem:

The deep blue ocean

Crashes against the reef.

Whales breaching.

I see the tail flukes coming out of the sea

While whacking the water.

Whales swimming with their babies

They changed my life.

If only they could see me from a distance

I wonder if they know that my heart is full of love.

You may think that they are scary on the outside

But they have a nice warm heart on the inside.

Recent Mother and Calf Pairs in Rarotonga

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


We were really excited to collect this skin


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

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

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.