Research History

Pacific Whale Foundation was one of the pioneers in the use of non-invasive scientific techniques to gather data about humpback whales. Pacific Whale Foundation's research efforts began in Hawaii, where researchers used shore-based, vessel-based and aerial observations of whales to gather data on the distribution and abundance of these animals. Pacific Whale Foundation also utilized photo-identification to identify and track individual whales over time.


Photo-identification involves photographing the underside of the whale's tail, or its flukes. Each whale's flukes have unique shapes, markings and pigmentation patterns, allowing it to serve as a type of "fingerprint" that's unique to the individual whale. As researchers gather these "fluke i.d. photos" they are also recording GPS data on the exact location where each fluke photo is taken, the whale's behaviors at the time and pod composition and other observations. In the early years of our work, our photoidentification data was recorded on photographic slides. A trained researcher visually compared new slides of individual animals against our catalog of previously identified individual whales, to look for matching flukes, or "resights." Later, our data was captured with digital cameras and the researchers visually compared new photos against existing photos in our catalog on computer screens.

International Research

In 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation launched a study of humpback whales found off the east coast of Australia.

Years later, Pacific Whale Foundation provided support and assistance to researcher Cristina Castro, PhD, whose whale research focused on an area off the coast of Ecuador known as Machalilla National Park. This study later became a Pacific Whale Foundation research project, and continues today, led by Dr. Castro. Other study sites have included Alaska, Japan and Tonga.


Since 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation has photo-identified more than 6,000 individual humpback whales in the Pacific and has published numerous articles, scientific papers and four books about humpback whales of the Pacific.

View our list of publications >

Other Hawaii-based research

In 1996, Pacific Whale Foundation launched its Odontocete Project, studying the wild dolphins and toothed whales found off the coasts of the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Lana'i.

Working in cooperation with the University of Hawaii, Pacific Whale Foundation also conducted the first comprehensive assessment of the marine and avian wildlife found at Molokini Marine Preserve. For seven years, Pacific Whale Foundation also conducted an assessment of Maui's threatened coral reefs, a study which used transects to evaluate the coverage of corals and the abundance and diversity of reef life in Maui's nearshore reefs.

Specific Projects

Pacific Whale Foundation's specific projects include:

  • Maui bottlenose dolphin population study (1990 - present)
  • Tonga humpback whale population/song study (1986 - 87; 2005)
  • East Australian humpback whale population study (1984 - present)
  • Ecuador humpback whale population study (2000 - present)
  • Ecuador by-catch study (2009 - present)
  • Maui: humpback whale/vessel interactions study: Surprise Encounters (2012 - present)
  • A study of biases in distance estimation during whale-watch operations (1999 - 2002; 2009)
  • Maui spinner dolphin population study (1996 - 2002)
  • Maui false killer whale population study (1999 - 2001)
  • Maui: Assessment of impacts of swimmers on green sea turtles (2000)
  • Social, economic and human attitudes of whale-watching (1986, 2000)
  • West Australian humpback whale population study (1985 - 1993)
  • Japan humpback whale population study (1989 - 90)
  • Hawaii coral reef monitoring (since 1989)
  • Maui: Habitat and Water Quality Study (1988)
  • Alaska humpback whale population study (1987)
  • Tonga/American Samoa/Fiji humpback whale population study (1979 - 1982)
  • Hawaiian islands humpback whale population study (since 1980)

Using our Data to Promote Protection of Marine Wildlife

Pacific Whale Foundation is a contributing member of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, a multi-lateral, non-lethal scientific research program aimed to improve the coordinated and cooperative delivery of science to the International Whaling Commission. Greg Kaufman, founder and president of Pacific Whale Foundation, is an invited participant and member of the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committe and has presented research papers from Pacific Whale Foundation to the IWC's Scientific Committee's annual meeting for several years.

Data collected by Pacific Whale Foundation is also provided to government agencies to aid in the management of marine wildlife.