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Written by Research Analyst Florence Sullivan

Looking back on a turbulent year, the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Research Department is grateful for the unceasing support of our members, donors, and supporters. Like everyone, we had to adapt our operations to accommodate safety measures, but thanks to your support, our department has been resilient and productive, both locally and globally.  

Our team worked throughout the year to produce high-quality research that can be used to raise local and global awareness about issues impacting marine mammals, and justify further research or actions taken by the scientific and management communities. We endeavor to inform and guide conservation measures around the world by sharing results and data-derived evidence from our various research studies.  Our applied research projects in Hawaii, Australia, Ecuador, as well as our collaborations with other researchers, advance the understanding of cetacean populations around the world. 


“This was my first year participating in research on Hawaiian cetaceans. I was delighted to encounter several species for the first time, including spinner dolphins and short-finned pilot whales. It was such a thrill to step away from my ID books and experience the different species’ identifying characteristics and behaviors for myself. ”

— Florence Sullivan, Research Analyst

Pilot Whale – Maui

Research department accomplishments in 2020: 

Con-currently managed 10 research projects in Hawaii, Australia, and Ecuador 

Trained two research interns

Continued to build collaborations with other research groups and organizations: 

  • Marine Mammal Research Program at UH Manoa, UH Hilo, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Whale Foundation to better understand humpback whale population health using UAV (drone) technology.  
  • Submitted over 4,700 photos (3,215 individual whales) to Happywhale for global matching and tracking of individual whales. We are now the #1 contributor of images on the site! 
“One of our biggest achievements this year was reconciling our entire North Pacific humpback whale photo-ID catalog (containing 4,730 unique whales and growing) and sharing it with research collaborators via Happywhale. This project, started in 2015, involved the quality control and digitization of 40 years of data, and was an enormous undertaking. Now that it is complete, I look forward to using this data set to answer new research questions about this population of whales” – Florence Sullivan, Research Analyst
  • Joined large-scale effort to predict disruptions to humpback whale migration due to climate change led by Griffith University 

Despite pandemic interruptions, we conducted successful field seasons in Hawaii, Australia, and Ecuador, as well as sponsored field work for a blue whale project in Chile. 

“I consider with great pride that our whale season in Ecuador has been successful. Thanks to PWF support we had 50 research trips from June to October 2020. Currently, I am separating and comparing the tails but we already have more than 100 new animals, many of them with incredible life stories. These data are important for long-term population monitoring and will help us determine if there are changes due to the decrease in human presence caused by the COVID pandemic.”

 — Dr. Cristina Castro, Research Associate, Ecuador 

  • Completed data collection in a three year effort to assess swim-with-whale tour operations in Hervey Bay, Australia 

“2020 has been tough for so many researchers around the world, and many research projects may have been halted. We were very fortunate in Hervey Bay, Australia, that data [regarding behavioral effects of swim-with-humpback whale tourism] could still be collected. These data are now currently being processed, analyzed and written up in the hope to provide information to the Australian Government to limit any disturbance to whales in this important resting area.”

— Dr. Kate Sprogis, Research Associate, Australia

Swim-with-Whales Hervey Bay, Australia
  • Thanks to our rapid response program and reports from the on-water community, we had 6 encounters with false killer whales and collected valuable information on their behaviors and morphometrics to aid in their conservation and management (1 more encounter than this time last year despite a pause in survey effort and decreased eyes on the water due to the pandemic!) 
  • Worked with Dr. Kristi West and Dr. Ilse Silva-Krott to collect targeted histological samples from a humpback whale placenta.  

“One of the most incredible, memorable moments I had in the research department this year was assisting our chief biologist, Stephanie, with dissecting a humpback whale placenta that was recovered from the ocean. It was mind-blowing to see the interplay of veins and arteries that served as the life-support system for a humpback whale fetus. Considering the rarity of this event, it truly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime moment and I am humbled to have played a small role in the advancement of scientific knowledge regarding humpback whale development and biology that will come from it.”

— Abigail Machernis, Research Biologist

  • In Hawaii, started a new marine debris survey to monitor if a pandemic-related reduction in beach use would be reflected in marine debris accumulation.   

I am proud to have been able to participate in data collection for the marine debris research surveys during the pandemic.  Seeing first-hand how the levels of marine debris have increased across the course of the pandemic and during the reopening of the State of Hawaii has made it even more clear that our advocacy and conservation efforts are critical to the health of our oceans.  I hope that these data can be used as a tool by policy makers and community conservation programs to help keep our Maui beaches and marine environment clean and healthy moving forward.” 

— Lizzy Beato, Research Assistant 

Disseminated our research results through scientific publications: 

  • Breeding humpback whales off Mozambique and Ecuador show geographic variation of persistent organic pollutants and isotopic niches.

“One of my biggest achievements of 2020 has been leading a paper examining the threat of fisheries interactions on bottlenose and pantropical spotted dolphins in Maui Nui. My colleagues and I are excited to share these results and fill important data gaps in knowledge on this topic with other scientists, resource managers and our supporters in 2021!” 

-Abigail Machernis, Research Biologist 

Bottlenose Dolphin – Maui

“This year I am extremely proud to have had the opportunity to lead a research paper assessing vessel impact on our local dolphin species. It gave me the chance to really learn about that specific threat and gain some new analysis skills. I am excited to see everything come together and for us to share these results.” 

—Grace Olson, Research Biologist

Spinner Dolphin – Maui

Participated in virtual scientific conferences to share our work and contribute to management recommendations 

  • Jens Currie was elected to the Research primary Seat on the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council 
  • Dr. Cristina Castro was invited to update the IUCN red list status for some cetacean species in Ecuador 
  • Our senior researchers, Dr. Cristina Castro, Jens Currie and Stephanie Stack participated in the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee meeting 

Participated in community events in Hawaii, Australia and Ecuador providing informative talks about our projects in-person (prior to COVID) and then virtually.  

  • In Ecuador, we conducted online workshops for guides, vessel captains and park rangers regarding identifying whales & dolphins, photo ID and safe navigation around cetaceans. 
  • In Hawaii, engaged with virtual audiences through live presentations and Q&A sessions regarding ongoing research projects. 
  • Encouraged public participation in our photo donation program and the use of our free sighting recording app, Whale & Dolphin Tracker.  
  • In Australia, we presented at two community outreach events, Paddle out for Whales and Creating Waves.

Planning for the future 

  • The research department spent this year developing a Global Impact Plan with a goal of identifying and prioritizing areas of research that would allow Pacific Whale Foundation to make the greatest level of impact on whale and dolphin conservation. We performed a comprehensive review to identify areas of ecological significance for cetaceans around the globe and the greatest stressors and threats to cetaceans in those regions. Our researchers will use this information over the next 5-10 years to guide the development and expansion of PWF research, education and conservation projects.  

In 2021, we look forward to adding contributions to the scientific literature, strengthening our partnerships with other research organizations, and continuing to incorporate new technologies into our research projects to better understand emerging threats to the populations we study. 

Please consider supporting our research by donating, adopting a marine animal, becoming a member, or learn how else you can help. Your donation allows us to continue our important work to learn more about marine animals. The more we understand them, the better we are able to educate and inspire others to help protect and conserve these fascinating creatures in Hawaii. Mahalo for being an ocean advocate!