Mysteries of the Ocean (click here for full story)

After the research team’s encounters last week (read the blog here-, we have been keeping very busy.  Our sighting of False Killer Whales is still the talk of the lab, and has kept us deep in data right up until our next field day, yesterday, August 30th.  The excitement from last week hung in the air but realistically, the likelihood of having a similar encounter was minimal (as scientists, we tend to think in probabilities).  However, the day before, one of our sister vessels (Ocean Quest) reported sightings of False Killer Whales heading north near Ka’anapali.  Yet, the zone the research team was to run transects in was south near Kihei and Wailea.  But, random surveys lead to more accurate distribution data, so off to the south we went.

As we were leaving Ma’alaea harbor area, we realized the wind was not going to work in our favor.  We began our first transect line with the wind somewhat at our backs, whipping mist across the vessel.  Most of the team had jackets on (yep jackets in Maui) and the data recorder had to huddle over the data sheet while we were under way.  Just as the sea conditions started getting bad enough that we would have to end the transect line early, one of our observers yelled out that she had seen a dorsal fin ahead of the vessel.  Out came the encounter datasheet and camera.  The usual data (bearing to the animals, sea state, reaction of pod to vessel, etc) were taken with the boat in neutral before pursuing a closer look at the animals.

Sure enough, these dorsal fins belonged to False Killer Whales!!  Our second encounter in two weeks!  We first had a group of 3 traveling 5-8 knots north in very close association.  Two of these resembled a mom and calf pair with another large adult trailing right behind.  With them traveling so fast against the wind and swells, it became difficult to keep track of them.  After 10 minutes of attempting difficult photo identification images of these 3, they dove directly under our vessel where we counted 4!  Another FKW was now with the group, and their behavior immediately changed to slow, milling about.  At this point, we noticed a Frigate Bird flying overhead and another FKW a little further off.  Perhaps the 3 were trying to catch up with the larger group of feeding FKWs.  It was tricky to say for sure how many we saw this time, but range between 6-10.  We stayed a little while longer attempting to get dorsal fin images of the others in the group, then it was time to focus back in on transects.

The rest of our day was uneventful as far as dolphins are concerned but there is one moment that will stick in our heads forever.  The captain saw something leap out of the water ahead of the vessel.  At first no one knew what it was.  It happened a second time and the words “Breaching Manta Ray” rang through the air!  We all scrambled to the edge of the vessel to get a better view.  This manta ray swam underneath Ocean Freedom, a 40 foot vessel, and its wingspan stretched nearly half the length of the vessel.  This was not your normal 4-6 foot manta ray, it was a pelagic manta ray with wingspan stretching nearly 20 feet!!  And then it was gone…

Both these encounters remind us of the mystery that the ocean holds and it’s that mystery which draws so many of us to the expanse of the sea.  The chance that you could see a huge manta ray leap from the water or a species of dolphin, extremely low in numbers, pass by at any moment.  Don’t forget to look out at the ocean every chance you get and appreciate that mystery.  And for those not near the ocean, help do your part to keep our oceans healthy so that beautiful mystery can continue for generations to come.