Odontocete Project - Second Day of Surveys

We convened at the Pacific Whale Foundation's research office as usual, bright and early in the morning. When I parked my car I noticed it was windy, the trades blowing gently through as they do usually here in Maalaea. My goal this morning was to get another set of survey lines done. When the Research Team gets on the research vessel, the goal is to search for marine mammals along systematic lines which cross Maui County's four-island area in a well behaved pattern of parallel lines, one mile apart, crossing from Maui to Lanai and all the way to almost Molokai. We search this way because it allows us to cover our study area evenly and have a better understanding, this way, of marine mammal distribution patterns. But it is not always as easy as it seems. It is not easy because, this year, we are looking specifically for more elusive marine mammal species such as bottlenose dolphins, false killer whales, pilot whales and many other species of toothed whales that are year-round residents of these waters but roam incessantly between islands, are sometime shy of boats and are small and hard to detect.

Today was a typical day: we spent many hours travelling our transect lines but we found no sign of odontocetes. Many humpbacks cheered us along, as usual, trying to make us feel welcome in the vast expanse of blue that divides Maui and Lanai. And for the most part, they managed to distract us from our task, especially when they breached in the distance. 

Despite our lack of odontocete sightings today, we felt very lucky to be out there. It was a gorgeous day, crisp, and relatively calm considering that these waters, sometime, are impossible to travel with our 19ft research vessel.  We will still spend many hours in the lab, transcribing data, writing down what we did not see....I wonder if many realize how much time we actually spend indoors working on data. For every hour we spend out on the water, we are looking at at least four hours of data processing time. So we are very happy when we are on the boat, away from the computer screen, breathing the pure island breeze and watching humpbacks make fun of our efforts.

But to a researcher, zero is an important number. It means the animals we are searching for are not found at very high densities around the islands. Yet we know they are there and discovering when and where is one of our priorities.

If we found what we were looking for this (photo) is very likely what we would have seen...an incredibly intelligent set of eyes, as inquisitive as our own.