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Pacific Whale Foundation Makes a Splash at the World Marine Mammal Conference

Thanks to our wonderful members, donors, and PacWhale Eco-Adventures passengers, our researchers had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona, Spain in December 2019 to attend the World Marine Mammal Conference. This conference was truly one-of-a-kind because it represented a combined meeting for the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the European Cetacean Society. Nearly 2,700 of the world’s experts in marine mammal science assembled for two days of workshops and four days of conference presentations.  

As part of the opening address, a video In Memorium was presented to the attendees, acknowledging researchers who had passed away since the previous meeting. Included this year was a moving tribute to Greg Kaufman, who founded Pacific Whale Foundation in 1980 and passed away in 2018.


Why do Pacific Whale Foundation researchers attend scientific conferences?  

(1) CONTINUING EDUCATION. It’s critical that scientists know what the trends in our field of research are so we can design appropriate research studies and work to answer the most important and relevant questions. We also learn from what others are doing, such as advances in equipment, new ways of conducting analyses, or a new software that can make our work easier.  

(2) PARTNERSHIPS AND BUILDING TECHNIQUES. Our science is made stronger by working collaboratively with others, and these relationships are often formed at conferences, workshops, and other meetings.  

(3) SHARING OUR WORK. By presenting at conferences, we establish and maintain our reputation in the global research community and let others know what we are working on and how this research can be used. When presenting preliminary findings, feedback from the audience is a valuable tool to inform and strengthen the final product. 

How did PWF contribute to the WMMC?  

PWF Chief Biologist Stephanie Stack presented research investigating the potential impacts of human activities, such as whale watching from vessels and commercial swim-with-whale programs, on humpback whale behavior. It is important to consider human-caused behavior changes when developing regulations and management plans, because behavior changes can give rise to population-level impacts. If whales use more energy than their energy stores allow due to human influence, this behavior change could, in turn, decrease the amount of energy available to feed, breed, migrate, and reproduce. Our research highlights the need for continued monitoring, and adaptive management of human activities near whale populations worldwide.  

From 2013 –2018, PWF conducted a multi-species survey in Maui Nui waters with the goal of estimating abundance and distribution of island-associated dolphin species. PWF Chief Scientist Jens Currie presented a comparison of three different analysis techniques; mark-recapture, line-transect distance sampling, and density surface modeling, and their relative effectiveness in assessing species abundance. Technique comparisons like this are useful to the research community because they help guide the design of future projects and remind us of the importance of using monitoring goals to inform data collection and analysis efforts.  


Cristina Castro presented observations of unusual “friendly whale” behavior in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, and proposed definition of the term as whales who approach boats and stay near them without moving away or showing evidence of avoidance behaviors for an extended period of time. These behaviors were not seen before 2016, putting Christina’s research team in an exciting position to monitor frequency of this behavior change over time, and work with collaborators in other breeding areas to see if these behaviors occur elsewhere as well. 

PWF Collaborations

In addition to these 3 presentations, the conference was full of other poster and oral presentations where Pacific Whale Foundation has contributed data and/or funding to support the work of other researchers. some examples of that collaboration include: 


Along with researchers from six different locations in South America, Pacific Whale Foundation contributed acoustic data from humpback whales in Ecuador in a collaborative effort to build a dictionary of humpback whale song units. By comparing these units, researchers determined that two different humpback whale stocks, previously thought to rarely interact, have exhibited cultural interaction in 3 consecutive years, providing new and exciting insight into humpback whale culture and the evolution of song.  


Pacific Whale Foundation also supported the work of Isabel Goncalves, who visited our Maui office in the summer of 2019.  Isabel presented her research findings utilizing both land-based visual observations and passive acoustic monitoring to merge what is observed with what is heard from humpback whales in the Serra Grande region of Brazil.  In this breeding ground, Isabel and her team aimed to characterize the behavior and movement patterns of humpback whales and associate them to their acoustic behaviors. Her research project was featured in a short film that was screened at Pacific Whale Foundation’s World Whale Film Festival last year on Maui. View the short film


A project from researchers at the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary found matches from whales in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to whales previously sighted near Maui by PWF researchers. These matches were facilitated through Happywhale, a machine-learning platform that compared fluke photos taken by the researchers on this project to photos taken by other research collaborators. Pacific Whale Foundation is proud to be Happywhale’s 2nd largest contributor of encounters and photos from our humpback whale catalogs. By actively contributing to Happywhale , PWF researchers can gain a better understanding of where “our” humpback whales migrate when they are not in Hawaii.  


Martin van Aswegen, a PhD candidate with the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, presented his work using unoccupied aerial systems (drones) to estimate entanglement and scarring rates on southeast Alaskan humpback whales. Pacific Whale Foundation is proudly supporting Martin’s PhD work, as we continue to work with him and his team on a collaborative project examining the health of North Pacific humpback whales by examining body condition to quantify the energetics of their annual migration. 


The conference also hosted a series of presentations by Hawaii and Southeast Alaska researchers highlighting a recent decline in whale sightings in these areas. This trend was the subject of a recent workshop which PWF researchers participated in. During the workshop, invited participants presented their data on humpback whale sighting rates from 2013 onward, considered potential explanations for the observed decreased trends, identified knowledge gaps, and prioritized research priorities to fill those gaps. Pacific Whale Foundation will play an important role is assessing population health, one of the top research priorities identified by the working group, to assess whether health is a factor in decreased sightings. You can read the full workshop report here.  

A Pacific Whale Foundation reunion  

The Pacific Whale Foundation reach extends far beyond our program areas in Hawaii, Australia, and Ecuador, and this world conference was the perfect opportunity to catch up with all the amazing people who we have been fortunate to have mentored and supported over the years. The night before the conference started, we hosted a meet-up for current & former Pacific Whale Foundation interns and graduate students. Our social was attended by (L-R): Katie Welsh, Vanessa Simons, Holly Self, Stephanie, Jens, Carly Patulny, Martin Van Aswegen, Lindsey Ellett, and Fabien Vivier. It was great to reconnect with our extended PWF Ohana and see all the amazing work they have accomplished since their time with PWF. We are so proud of all these hardworking folks and look forward to keeping in touch with them! 

Conferences also offer an unparalleled opportunity to connect with other researchers to discuss our joint projects, establish new partnerships, and brainstorm ideas. One example of a great international relationship is that with the Tropical Aquarium in Paris. Our researcher Stephanie Stack met with Olivier Adam, curator of the Baleinopolis exhibition at the Tropical Aquarium, which features a video of Stephanie discussing the social interactions between whales and dolphins. You can learn more about this exhibit

In a conference with over 2500 attendees, we are proud of the variety of topics addressed by PWF researchers, former interns and collaborators. We shared new knowledge about behavioral ecology, data gathering and analysis techniques, acoustics, abundance and distribution of cetaceans, and highlighted areas of interest for further study. As the humpback whales return to Hawaiian waters, we look forward to a fruitful field season and new insights to share at future conferences.  

You can help support this important research by becoming a PWF member, donor, or symbolically adopting a marine animal. Find out how you can help.