A spectacular underwater look at humpback whales, their amazing learned behaviors

Local News

MAUI, Hawaii (KHON2) — Just as they do every year from November through April, the humpbacks pass through our Hawaiian waters as part of a near 5,600 mile round trip migration from Alaska where they feed to Hawaii where they breed, and the females give birth.

“Right now we’re only getting a snapshot during this three month window of a year for whale right,” said Lars Bejder, director of UH’s Marine Mammal Research Program.

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For those who study these animals every move the opportunities to get up close and conduct this research, it’s not only vital, but heavily monitored.

“Every year and we can only approach a given individual three times,” said Bejder. “I try to get that suction cups on them.”

Once successfully attached, the tags provide incredible and invaluable information as well as a high definition glimpse into their behavior and interactions underwater.

The tagging of the whales is just one component of the research.

Another critical element is the information gathered by drones.

Joining the trio of scientists working to tag the giant mammals on the water, is another team of grad students from the University of Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Research Program that is working in tandem above.

“And we can measure the total length of the whale as well as along 20 different points of the body,” said grad student Martin van Aswegan.

The images from both above water and below allow researchers to locate and track the exact same animal on each end of their journey.

“That’s why this project is really neat because we follow the same individuals across time and space,” said Bejder. “Therefore we could really say some thing about the full life cycle of these animals.”

Andy Szabo is seeing how the humpbacks interact in Hawaiian waters for the first time.

He’s spent the past 25 years monitoring their activity in Alaska where they spend the majority of their time eating to gather the strength needed for the trip here.

The quality of the food source in Alaska determines how healthy the whales will be once they arrive, and how successful the mating season will be.

“We get about 10,000 humpback whales to come to the Hawaiian islands,” said Bedjer. “This year we haven’t crunched the numbers yet but it looks pretty healthy as far as we can see right now.”

Now researchers have discovered the whales have taken their feeding habits to a new level. They are blowing circles of bubble nets to trap their prey.

“This bubble netting behavior in Alaska is really a form of tool use,” said Szabo. “If they’re feeding on krill they will blow these concentric circles that are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. So they have to be able to coordinate and communicate. They do all this, It’s a very complex behavior and it’s amazing.”

Amazing is a word used often when studying these giant mammals. With every migration, every tag, and every drone flight, more information is learned. More information is passed on to the next generation of their protectors.

“I normally study spinner dolphins” said grad student Liah MacPherson “This is my first time out here with the whales. It’s a great experience. It’s what every little girl dreams of.”

“I’ve never been out here in the breeding grounds” said grad student Brijonnay Madrigal. “Seeing the amazing behaviors we’re able to see out here. It’s pretty incredible. All these mother calf has been an amazing experience. We’re lucky to be here.”

“Sharing this information and being able to teach everything that we’ve learned it’s really important,” said van Aswegan. “It allows us to keep this momentum open to the future to get these long-term benefits and really make the most of what we’re doing. So we could help the animals as best as we can.”

For more information, visit https://www.mmrphawaii.org.

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