Hawaiian Cetacean Studies

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False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens). Photo (c) Robin W. Baird.

Eighteen species of odontocetes and seven species of baleen whales have been documented in Hawaiian waters, yet until recently virtually all research has been focused on just two species, the humpback whale and spinner dolphin. Since February 2000 we have been undertaking research on cetaceans in Hawaiian waters (under the authorization of NMFS permits*), focusing on the less well-studied species of odontocetes. This research is being coordinated by Dr. Robin Baird, with the help of a team of researchers through Cascadia (Annie Gorgone, Elle Walters, Kimberly Wood, Sabre Mahaffy, Daniel Webster, David Anderson), and collaborations with a number of other individuals, including Renee Albertson, Russ Andrews, Aran Mooney, Karen Martien, Dan McSweeney, Erin Oleson, Bill Walker, and others. Funding for this work has come from variety of sources, including the Southwest Fisheries Science CenterPacific Islands Fishery Science CenterNorthwest Fisheries Science Center, the U.S. Navy (through the Naval Postgraduate School, the Office of Naval Research, Pacific Fleet, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Alaska SeaLife Center/University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and the Wild Whale Research Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Dolphin Quest, the M.B. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, the John F. Long Foundation, the Hawai‘i Ocean Project, other private foundations and organizations, and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. These studies have covered areas around all the main Hawaiian islands, from the island of Hawai‘i in the east to Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau in the west, and focus on a number of species, including false killer whalesbottlenose dolphinsshort-finned pilot whalesrough-toothed dolphinsmelon-headed whalespygmy killer whalespantropical spotted dolphinsBlainville's beaked whales, and Cuvier's beaked whales. Much of this research is attempting to address a variety of conservation and management issues. This work has involved studies of:

  • Odontocete stock structure

    This involves examination of residency and inter-island movements of individuals using photo-identification and satellite- and VHF-radio tagging, and population structure using genetic markers (from skin biopsies). We have photo-identification catalogs of 12 species: bottlenose dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, spinner dolphins, false killer whales, killer whales, melon-headed whales, short-finned pilot whales, pygmy killer whales, Cuvier's beaked whales, Blainville's beaked whales, dwarf sperm whales, and fin whales, and have added photographs taken over the last 30 years of individuals of a number of species off the island of Hawai‘i, collected by Dan McSweeney of the Wild Whale Research Foundation. Photographs of sperm whales are also contributed to a catalog at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. In April 2006 we began deployments of long-term VHF and satellite tags (based on a tag design of Dr. Russ Andrews of the University of Alaska Fairbanks) to examine movements. To date we've deployed over 250 satellite tags on 12 species: short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, pygmy killer whales, melon-headed whales, killer whales, rough-toothed dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso's dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, Cuvier's beaked whales, Blainville's beaked whales, and sperm whales. For molecular studies, we've collected over a thousand genetic samples from 12 different species, and have more field work planned. These samples are being primarily being analysed by researchers with the Marine Mammal Genetics Group at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California, as well as Ph.D. students at various universities.

  • Odontocete population assessment

    Population estimation is undertaken using mark-recapture analyses of individual photo-identification data. To date, data from bottlenose dolphins (see Baird et al. 2001, below), false killer whales (see Baird et al. 2005, below), rough-toothed dolphins, Cuvier's beaked whales and Blainville's beaked whales have been analyzed, and catalogs for other species are available for such analyses. Some of this work (e.g., false killer whales) has being done in collaboration with other researchers.

  • Diving behavior and ecology

    These studies involve using suction-cup or LIMPET tags, analyses of habitat use, and studies of trophic ecology. Habitat use is being examined looking at distribution in relation to depth and slope using ArcGIS. Tagging studies have involved deployments of time-depth recorders, DTAGs, Bprobes, Acousondes, and/or depth-transmitting LIMPET satellite tags, on short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, pantropical spotted dolphins, Cuvier's beaked whales, Blainville's beaked whales, melon-headed whales, and humpback whales, as well as deployments of the National Geographic Crittercam system on short-finned pilot whales and false killer whales. Examples of footage from the Crittercam deployments can be seen below (false killer whale on left, short-finned pilot whale, and oceanic whitetip shark, on right).