Friday | May 26, 2017
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Whale tales: Students set sail for biology class research

Save the whales

Dolphins and whales occasionally become stranded on shore or in shallow waters. Such events are life-threatening because their bodies are designed for life in the water and do not function well on land.

Strandings should be reported to the hotline as soon as possible.

Collisions between whales and vessels occur annually. The events present serious risks to the boaters and the whales. Many humpback whales congregate in waters less than 600 feet deep throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

What boaters can do to avoid hitting whales:

Slow down — When whales are believed to be in the area, reduce your speed.

Keep a sharp lookout — Post a dedicated person to watch for whales.

Be ready to respond — Keep hands on the helm and throttle at all times.

Put vessel in neutral — Let whales that have approached within 100 yards move away.

Approaches — Don’t approach whales from head on or directly behind.

If you observe a marine mammal in distress you can call the 24-hour hotline for assistance at 1-888-256-9840.

Other facts:

Females typically give birth to a calf every two to three years. Calves nurse for about a year and the male sings an elaborate song, which apparently has social significance.

Humpbacks feed on small schooling fish and krill during the summer and fall months in productive areas of the North Pacific, like Alaska. Humpbacks are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They are afforded additional protection from the state wildlife laws, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Approximately 10,000 humpbacks migrate to and from Hawaii’s waters each year.

Source: "Hawaii’s Marine Mammals: An Ocean Users Guide and Summary of Threats"

Water from Hilo Bay came splashing up as giant waves rocked a boat holding several University of Hawaii at Hilo students on the lookout Wednesday morning.

“Whale! Whale!” shouted Zach Taylor, a 21-year-old marine science major at UH-Hilo.

Taylor and his peers have been spotting humpback whales in the bay since January as part of UH-Hilo associate professor Dr. Jason Turner’s Biology of Marine Mammals Lab.

The course provides aspiring marine science researchers at UH-Hilo with hands-on data collection experience.

On top of learning a variety of topics ranging from the evolution, systematics and biogeography of marine mammal groups to an overview of their musculoskeletal systems and dive physiology, the students in Turner’s class learn what it means to be in the field, seasickness and all.

Wednesday morning’s waves had some students sitting back clutching their stomachs, but their eyes never left the horizon where they gazed the ocean for spouts of water coming from the whales’ blowholes.

Strapped with DSLR cameras, binoculars, timers and record sheets, the students were separated into different groups where they kept track of any whales spotted every five minutes.

With only three whales being recorded Wednesday, Turner explained the humpbacks migrate to Hawaii each year to give birth, nurse their young and mate. They begin their travels in November and are known to stay around until May with most of the whales being seen between January and March.

“There were so many whales at the beginning of the semester,” said Jenna Rubin, 21, who is studying marine science at the university.

When the crew finally spotted what was suspected to be a male humpback, Turner had the captain stop the boat while he dropped a hydrophone into the water. Also referred to as a water phone, the mechanism was attached to the boat and allowed students and those aboard to listen to the male humpback sing his unique song, which lasted about 20 minutes.

“It kind of sounds like a cow,” joked Katerina Dodds, a marine biology major and Australian exchange student.

Turner said the recording is an important part of the research, but the real emphasis is documenting a humpback’s fluke, located on the underside of a whale’s tail.

“It’s like taking a fingerprint,” he explained.

Turner said recording a male whale’s fluke and song is what is known as the “holy grail,” something rare and depends on being at the right place at the right time.

Data collected from Turner’s class is sometimes compared to that of his colleagues in Alaska, from where most of the whales travel. Turner said through the years they’ve seen the population increase since protection techniques were implemented. The students also study the whales’ migration patterns. It is thought the males migrate to Hawaii first, followed by females and other males who are thought to travel “for practice.”

Along with educating the students on data-collection practices, Turner teaches them about the importance of professionalism and operates the program as if it were a real research job. With 25 percent of the students’ grades based on professionalism, the aspiring researchers learned not to let the sight of a humpback get the best of them.

“The breach is random and can happen when you least expect it. As long as you’re not like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whale in front of me!’ then you’re good,” said Audrey Bonk, a 21-year-old student from Iowa.

Next week, the students will analyze fin shots taken throughout the course of the semester.

Email Megan Moseley at


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