Hawaiian Cetacean Studies

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

In the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian chant of creation, the whale is a kino lau (physical manifestation) of the god Kanaloa. In our work we hold a deep respect for these animals, and we also recognize that we are basing our work on sovereign indigenous lands and studying species that are sacred to Hawaiians and others today. We work to share the results of our effort broadly within local communities, to ensure that our work is used to protect Hawaiian whales and dolphins.

Ma ke Kumulipo, ʻo ke oli kumu honua hoʻi, he kino lau o Kanaloa ke koholā. Ma kā mākou hana, he hōʻihi kūhohonu ko mākou i kēia holoholona, a maopopo leʻa pū mākou i ka pili o kā mākou hana i nā ʻāina ʻōiwi a kulāiwi hoʻi a he kālailai pū kā mākou i nā lāhulu kapu i nā kānaka maoli me ka poʻe ʻōiwi ʻē aʻe o kēia wā. E hoʻolaha a hōʻike aku ana mākou i nā hua o kā mākou hana i ke kaiāulu i mea e hōʻoiaʻiʻo aku ai i ka pono o kā mākou hana no ka mālama ʻana aku i nā koholā me nā naiʻa Hawaiʻi.*

Eighteen species of odontocetes and eight species of baleen whales have been documented in Hawaiian waters, but prior to the last 25 years most research was focused primarily on just two species, the humpback whale and spinner dolphin. Starting in 1999, we have been undertaking research on cetaceans in Hawaiian waters (under the authorization of NMFS permits*), focusing on the less well-studied species, both odontocetes and mysticetes. This is a team effort, with researchers through Cascadia (Robin Baird, Sabre Mahaffy, Annette Harnish, Jordan Lerma, Colin Cornforth, Michaela Kratofil, Annie Douglas, Alexandra Vanderzee, Jackie Shaff, Daniel Webster, Kimberly Wood, Shelby Yahn), and collaborations with a number of other individuals (including Russel Andrews, Janelle Badger, Amanda Bradford, Jeremy Kiszka, Karen Martien, Dan McSweeney, Erin Oleson, Kristi West and others), and involving a number of graduate students and volunteers. 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, Living Marine Resources, 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 Tides 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 goose-beaked whales. Much of this research is attempting to address a variety of conservation and management issues. This work has involved studies of:

  • Odontocete spatial use and 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 14 species: bottlenose dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, spinner dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, false killer whales, killer whales, melon-headed whales, short-finned pilot whales, pygmy killer whales, goose-beaked whales, Blainville’s beaked whales, dwarf sperm whales, sei whales and fin whales, and have added photographs taken since the mid-1980s 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. As of May 2024 we’ve deployed over 400 satellite tags on 13 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, goose-beaked whales, Blainville’s beaked whales, sperm whales, and humpback whales. For molecular studies, we’ve collected over 1800 genetic samples (including biopsy samples, sloughed skin samples, and eDNA) from 18 different species, and have more field work planned. These samples are being primarily being analyzed by researchers with the Marine Mammal Genetics Group at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California, as well as Ph.D. students and collaborators 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 Van Cise et al. 2021), false killer whales (Bradford et al. 2018), rough-toothed dolphins, goose-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 been done in collaboration with other researchers, and all of it has benefited strongly from community science contributions of photographs.

  • 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 both fixed (e.g., depth and slope) and dynamic (e.g., SST, eddies) variables. Tagging studies have involved deployments of time-depth recorders, DTAGs, Bprobes, Acousondes, and/or depth-transmitting LIMPET satellite tags. We have dive data available for 11 different species, including short-finned pilot whales, melon-headed whales, false killer whales, rough-toothed dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, goose-beaked whales, Blainville’s beaked whales, sperm whales, and humpback whales, as well as deployments of the National Geographic Crittercam system on short-finned pilot whales and false killer whales.

We believe it is important to make sure our datasets are available in perpetuity and for other researchers, and archive our sightings and effort data on the OBIS-SEAMAP archive, and our satellite tag datasets on the Animal Telemetry Network. While our photo-identification catalogs are not yet archived on an independent online system, we await the availability of a long-term government-sponsored archive system for photo-identification catalogs.
*ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi translation by Ākeamakamae Kiyuna and Kuʻupuamaeʻole Mossman