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.

  • Odontocete distribution, abundance, and life-histories
  • Odontocetes are toothed whales and dolphins, and relatively little is known about most odontocete species found in the waters surrounding Maui. We aim to monitor trends in their distribution, abundance and movement patterns throughout the four-island region of Maui. To do this, we are conducting line transect surveys and collecting data using distance sampling methodologies.

  • Social structure of false killer whales in Maui
  • False killer whales are a type of large toothed whale, and in fact, they are technically dolphins (all dolphins are whales). They get their namesake from the resemblance of their skull to that of killer whales (orcas). In Hawaii, there are three populations of false killer whales: offshore (pelagic), Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and a Main Hawaiian Islands population known as the Hawaiian insular population.

    Hawaii’s false killer whales have experienced a decline in numbers due to multiple threats, including interactions with fisheries, ingestion of marine debris, and exposure to anthropogenic noise pollution. The insular population is estimated to contain fewer than 200 individuals and very few of them are females capable of breeding. Due to its extremely small population size and limited range, the Natural Resource Defense Council petitioned in 2009 to list the Hawaiian insular population of false killer whales as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

    This research project is focused on using photo-identification to increase our understanding of the social ecology and behavior of false killer whales in Maui waters in order to better conserve and manage the species.

  • Land-based study of effects of vessel presence on whale behavior
  • Our research conducted during the Surprise Encounters with Humpback Whales study (2013 – 2016) collected data from vessels to understand the risk of vessel collisions of whales. To complement our vessel-based surveys, land-based observations of humpback whales will allow us to assess how the presence of a vessel may affect the whales’ behavior.