Tagging whales to preserve their future

Local News

MAUI, Hawaii (KHON2) — This is the heart of whale migration season here in Hawaii.

That is a chance for sightseers to be wowed but more importantly it is a chance for scientists to study the giant mammals in an effort to ensure their survival.

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KHON2 was invited to join scientists to get an exclusive look at the human effort needed learn more about the humpback whales and their behaviors.

They load up and head out every morning at sunrise in a zodiac no bigger than a newborn humpback calve.

The Marine Biologists from the University of Hawaii, Stanford and the head of the Alaska Whale Foundation all in search of calves and their nursing mothers.

Each year around this time, the scientists have a two week window to study the humpback whales which make their annual migration here from the colder waters of Alaska.

“Right now we’re looking for mothers and calves with the idea we can attached one of these suction tags on the small one, the calve,” said Lars Bejder, director of the UH Mammal Marine Research Program at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Bejder is joined by Andy Szabo conducts similar research as the head of the Alaska Whale Foundation. What they learn on both sides of the Pacific provides a 360-degree look at what the animals experience on their annual pilgrimage.

“It’s an incredible opportunity” said Szabo. “I’ve spent all my time working with these animals in Alaska foraging where they feed. This is my first time coming down here to see them on the big breeding ground. It’s an entirely different set of behaviors watching how the calves interact with their moms and how the males interact with the females. It’s an entirely different thing.”

The research provides invaluable information to ensure the species continues to thrive but it’s no easy task.

The tags only weigh a couple of pounds and harmlessly attach to the animal using the suction cups. They have a suite of sensors built-in and more importantly camera a high resolution camera.

The team is required to gain state and federal permits and is limited on how many approaches they get. That makes every opportunity vital. Success is celebrated.

Once attached, the camera on the tags provide a rare glimpse into a dazzling and loving underwater ballet between mother and child.

“My lab is interested in what different species of whales are doing underwater” said Will Gough, another researcher from Stanford University. “These tags offer a really good opportunity to do that”.

With the camera and other tools, the scientists can then repeatedly track the same animal during its 5,600 mile round trip from here to Alaska and back.

“The long-term goal here is to figure out what is the energetic cost of being a humpback whale” said Bejder. “And the reason that is important is we are seeing a lot of changes in our climate right now. We can actually measure those impacts by looking up the body condition of these animals. So the better we can understand what the cost is to be a well we can predict what affects climate change might help on these animals but also in the ecosystem as a whole.”

There’s one more critical step to gleaning that information which is retrieving the tags. That’s where all the information and video is stored. They can be programmed to pop off in a matter of hours, or are often nudged off by the whales themselves. This makes for some not so fun recoveries.

“Last year we had to fly to Molokai three times,” said Bejder. “Then charter a boat from there so we do these expeditions two weeks at a time but we get 10 years older every time because of the stress and lack of sleep every night that these tags are out there.”

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