Posted on: December 11, 2013

PWF Senior Research Scientist Presents on Vessel-Whale Collision Study at Marine Mammology Conference

Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez, Senior Research Scientist at Pacific Whale Foundation, will be presenting Pacific Whale Foundation's findings from its modeling study of the potential for vessel collisions with humpback whales off Maui, at the 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand from December 9 through 13.

The conference draws marine mammal scientists from around the world, who gather to enhance collaboration, share ideas and improve the quality of research of marine mammals. This year's conference theme is "Marine Mammal Conservation: Science Making a Difference." The conference includes 357 talks and about 400 posters. Between 1,000 and 1,200 people from more than 30 countries were expected to attend.

The conference organizers selected Pacific Whale Foundation's poster presentation, titled "Surprise Encounters and Near-Misses: Proxies of Vessel Strikes in Maui County Waters, Hawai'i, USA," for display at the conference. In addition to Dr. Martinez, the other co-authors include; Pacific Whale Foundation's Research Analyst Jens Currie (First author), Research Data Technician Elizabeth Davidson; Research Biologist Stephanie Stack, Vessel Staff Davy Frey, Pacific Whale Foundation former research director Daniela Maldini and Pacific Whale Foundation Founder and Executive Director Greg Kaufman.

"Vessel collisions between whales and vessels are a matter of concern worldwide, which includes the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary given that the humpback whale numbers are on the increase," says Dr. Martinez. "Our study aims at assessing and the likelihood of whale-vessel collisions in Maui County waters."

"Results from this five year study will also determine if additional precautions might need to be taken by boat captains at specific times during the whale season or in specific areas to further prevent collisions with whales in Maui waters."

Pacific Whale Foundation's study began in 2010, with research team members stationed on the company's whalewatch vessels. The researchers used handheld GPS devices to record each vessel's track or effort. Distance to whales when first sighted was recorded as well as weather conditions. At regular intervals (15 min), the number of humpback whales found within a mile radius from the boat was also gathered.

The study continued on Pacific Whale Foundation's dedicated research vessel Ocean Protector in 2013 and is scheduled to run until 2017 under NOAA/NMFS research permit (NOAA/NMFS 16479). The research team on Ocean Protector conducts "line transects" -- systematically drawn routes that are created on a map and followed with the help of GPS systems,  at varying speeds, noting the number of humpback whales sighted along a particular transect.

"We use the term ‘surprise encounter’ and ‘near miss’ to describe when a whale is detected for the first time at a distance of less than 300 and 80 meters from the vessel, respectively." explains Dr. Martinez.

"When we record a surprise encounter or a near miss, we gather data on the group size and  composition, as well as environmental conditions" she says. "We also take identification photos of the whales in the case of a near miss to determine if some individuals are potentially more susceptible to collisions."

"Overall, our goal is to assess if certain age-classes and/or group compositions (e.g. presence of calves) are more susceptible to vessel collisions," notes Dr. Martinez.

"Preliminary findings suggest that surprise encounters and near misses are more likely to occur at speeds exceeding 10 knots and that although these occurred across all age-classes, calves appear to be more vulnerable to vessel collisions," says Dr. Martinez.

Pacific Whale Foundation eco tour vessels abide by all federal and state regulations and guidelines in effect for Hawaiian and National Marine Sanctuary waters. In addition, the vessels are all required to adhere to Pacific Whale Foundation's Be Whale Aware guidelines, which limit vessel speeds to 15 knots or less during the day and 10 knots or less after dark. When within 440 yards of whales, the vessels are required to reduce their speed to 6 knots or less. Additional "Be Whale Aware" guidelines can be found at http://www.pacificwhale.org/BWA.

In addition to this study and the "Be Whale Aware" program, Pacific Whale Foundation has developed its "second generation" of Whale Protection Devices for its whalewatch vessels. These devices were created by nautical engineers with the goal of directing humpback whales away from propellers and running gear on vessels. Pacific Whale Foundation created the first Whale Protection Devices; new refined Whale Protection Devices were developed this year and installed on its vessels after receiving U.S. Coast Guard approval.

"These are the only U.S. Coast Guard approved Whale Protection Devices developed  for commercial vessels in the United States -- or in the world," says Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation Executive Director.

Pacific Whale Foundation staff also presented findings from this study and providing information on how to prevent collisions with whales at Pacific Whale Foundation's annual "Be Whale Aware" seminar for boaters on Monday, December 9.