Restoration Ecology in Hawaii

There she blows…………………………………….
by -- March 18th, 2013

“The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” — Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” 1851

I knew this was going to be one of my favorite days of our trip to Kauai. We had spent some wonderful time on the island, learning about Hawaiian culture and restoring endangered species with the Waipa Foundation and Limahuli Garden and Preserve, but as all my classmates know, I am the most comfortable on ships at sea. I have always had an affinity for the ocean and have spent close to the last 30 years on ships at sea; I never get tired of it, what could be better than another day underway looking for whales?

We have been very fortunate to talk to some amazing people on this trip and today was no exception. We  met Jean Souza, Kauai Coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Captain Tara of Kauai Sea Riders in Poipu to talk about — and hopefully see — humpback whales.

Souza explained that the humpback whale population that comes to Hawai‘i each winter is part of a much larger group that lives in the North Pacific Ocean, with feeding aggregations distributed in the Gulf of Alaska, southeast Alaska, and central California. The global population of humpbacks was depleted by the commercial whaling industry at the start of the 20th century  In 1973, the United States government made it illegal to hunt, harm or disturb humpback whales. When the Endangered Species Act was passed, the humpback whale was listed as endangered and remains so to this day. Humpback whales are protected as a resource of national significance within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, their habitat within the Hawaiian Islands marine environment.

With that introduction, we were ready to go. After a few safety tips from Captain Tara from the Kauai Sea Riders, our guide for the day, we clambered onto a 11M rigid hull inflatable boat (rhib), a large zodiac, and headed out to sea. As we steered out of the harbor we passed a large sea ray hovering just below the surface, and spotted a relatively rare red-tailed tropicbird.  Within a few minutes, we would see whale spots on the horizon. Captains Tara’s assistant deployed a small hydrophone off the transom of the boat and almost immediately, we heard whale vocalizations, male humpbacks singing their songs. Captain Tara repositioned our rhib to get a better view,  and as if on cue, we were treated to a tail slap and breach. Our whales did not disappoint.

Whale populations over the last 10 years have increased with the number of whales breeding off the Hawaiian Islands increasing from approximately 6,500 to approximately 12,000 today. Whales still are threatened by ship strikes, entanglement from marine debris and degrading water quality. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has been a big part of restoring the population and will be an important part of their protection in the future.

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