Whale tales: Students set sail for biology class research
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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