Research in Hawaii

Our research in Hawaii occurs in the four-island region of Maui, which includes the waters surrounding the islands of Maui, Kahoʻolawe, Lanaʻi and Molokaʻi. We study humpback whales and numerous species of odontocetes using both systematic and opportunistic data collection methods. Some of our current studies are described below.

  • Whale & Dolphin Tracker

    Whale & Dolphin Tracker is an application created by Pacific Whale Foundation to collect scientific data about marine wildlife in the four-island region of Maui, Kahoʻolawe, Lanaʻi and Molokaʻi. Marine wildlife sightings have been recorded by our certified Marine Naturalists onboard PacWhale Eco-Adventures since 2001 and Whale & Dolphin Tracker is the latest iteration of this long-term monitoring program. We can now log GPS location, group dynamics, observed behaviors, and other data in real time which is uploaded instantly to our research database.

    View our Live Whale & Dolphin Sightings Map >


    Members of the public can use Whale & Dolphin Tracker and participate in our research as citizen scientists by submitting marine wildlife sightings from any location around the world. Whale & Dolphin Tracker allows you to log sightings in real time, create a full GPS track, and upload photos from your mobile device. Your contributions will add to a global database that will help researchers track and monitor cetaceans, determine patterns of species distribution, and study marine animal interactions with their environment.

    To start, simply create an account using one of the following methods:

    Go here from your mobile device and click “Your Account” to create user login

    Download the app for from App Store or from Google Play

  • North Pacific Humpback Whale Catalog

    The humpback whale photo-identification (or photo-ID) project involves photographing and cataloging flukes, which are the underside of a humpback whale’s tail. Each whale has unique features, including the overall shape of the flukes, the shape of the trailing edge, any acquired scars, and natural pigmentation patterns. The flukes thus help identify individual whales when captured in digital photos.

    In addition, we record GPS data, behavioral displays, pod composition, and other observations at the time each fluke photo is taken. This information is centrally filed and used to identify and track individual whales over time. Database software is used to catalog individual whales and match them to new sightings. Photo-ID catalogs serve as a non-invasive way to gather information on the life histories of individual animals, including minimum age, site fidelity, sighting rate, and migratory movements.

    Although North Pacific humpback whales are an iconic species in Maui waters, there is still a lot to learn about their life history, behavior, and migration patterns. Through this catalog, we aim to advance our understanding of humpback whale biology and population status to help further conservation and management efforts. For this project, we are using photo-ID data from multiple sources, “platforms of opportunity” such as whalewatch ecotours, as well as photo donations from the public.

  • The Biology and Status of False Killer Whales in Maui Nui

    False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are a large species of dolphin and one of a group of dolphins known as the “blackfish”. Their name originates from their discovery: they were first described based on fossils and were thought to be extinct. Their skull and teeth resemble that of killer whales, so they were named the false killer whales. In Hawaii, there are three populations of false killer whales: an offshore (pelagic) population, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands population, and the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population. Our research focuses on the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population which has fewer than 200 individuals, of which very few are females capable of breeding. Due to its extremely small population size and limited range, the insular population was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2012. Our research involves locating false killer whales in the Maui Nui region and collecting identification and photogrammetry photos to determine population parameters and use underwater footage to record behaviors and assess scar patterns. We also use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to measure body size and condition as well as assess potential pregnancy status.

    We could not do this research without the continued help from the Maui on-water community who help us by reporting false killer whales in Maui Nui waters. If you see a false killer whale in Hawaii, immediately contact Chief Scientist Jens Currie at (808) 990-5544. We are excited to advance our research efforts and use our findings to help protect and conserve this population.


    NMFS Research Permit # 21321

    False killer whales are a large species of dolphin and one of a group of dolphins known as the “blackfish.” Our research focuses on the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population which has fewer than 200 individuals, of which very few are females capable of breeding. We could not do this research without the continued help from the Maui on-water community and by our Pacific Whale Foundation Members and supporters.

  • Defining Boundaries of the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins in Maui Nui

    The spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) is a small species of dolphin known for their acrobatic displays in which they spins along their longitudinal axis as they leap through the air. Spinner dolphins in Hawaii usually forage at night offshore and then during the day return to shallow bays to rest and conserve energy. In the Maui Nui region three main sites, La Perouse Bay, Lana’i, and Honolua Bay, have been identified as areas where these resting activities occur. The rate of interchange and movement between these sites is poorly documented, with minimal information on long-range movements between islands. This research study uses photo-identification to determine the individuals that occur at each of the three resting sites and the rate at which they move between the sites

  • Preventing Marine Debris through Effective Outreach and Policy

    Despite being the most isolated island chain in the world, marine debris is a consistent problem in Hawaii. In Maui County, there have been numerous bills signed into law to aid in the reduction of marine debris. Some of these mitigation measures include a no smoking on Maui County beaches, parks, and recreation areas (Maui County Code Section 13.04.020), no selling or distributing of single-use plastic bags (Maui County Code 20.18.010) and no selling or distributing of polystyrene (Maui County Code Section 20.26). This research study aims at evaluating these mitigation measures and comparing the efficacy of policy measures to that of education and outreach programs. We accomplish this through daily and monthly monitoring of marine debris on various beaches along Maui’s coast and near-shore environment, and compare data before and after policies went into place and before and after outreach programs were implemented. In conjunction with our systematic sampling, we have a long-term monitoring study where citizen scientists can record data on the types and amounts of debris they find along Maui’s coasts.

  • Health assessment of North Pacific humpback whales

    In 2016, the Hawaii distinct population segment (DPS) of humpback whales were delisted from the Endangered Species Act. Since that time sighting rates of humpback whales in Hawaiian and southeast Alaska have declined, for unknown reasons. This project will contribute to efforts investigating the possible causes of this apparent decline.
    This study is part of a larger collaborative effort with the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii and our aim is to use Unoccupied Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to measure within-season and between-season variations in body condition of humpback whales in Hawaiian waters and to quantify the energetics of the annual migration and of calf growth. Leveraging our photo-ID data set, dating back to 1981, with UAV measurements will allow us to investigate the body condition of individual whales with known histories and make inferences on the overall health of the population of whales.


Hawaii Visitor Update

Aloha, We Are Open!  Our PacWhale Eco-Adventures are open for booking as we welcome visitors back to Maui.  Quarantine restrictions were lifted on Oct. 15th for those following the state’s pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirements.