Updates from our June 2017 Hawai‘i Island field project


We will be undertaking a 14-day field project based out of Kona, Hawai‘i Island starting June 14, 2017. This will be our second field effort in Hawai‘i and our first off Hawai‘i Island this year, and our 16th year of working off the island of Hawai‘i. Although we’ve worked off the island every month of the year, we’ve only had one prior project in the month of June (in 2015). As in most of our field efforts, we are hoping to find and work with false killer whales, and will be working as far offshore as possible with the hopes of encountering individuals from the pelagic population. But like all of our field projects, we will work with all species of whales and dolphins we encounter, photo-identifying individuals (we have photo-ID catalogs of 11 different species in Hawai‘i), collecting remote skin/blubber biopsy samples for genetics, toxicology and hormone chemistry, deploying LIMPET satellite tags to track movements of several different species, and picking up any squid we find to determine what types of prey are in the area.

This project is supported by a grant from the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program of NOAA Fisheries, with additional support from Dolphin Quest.

The research crew for this project will include Daniel Webster, Kim Wood, Colin Cornforth, Lynn Padilla, Brittany Guenther, and Robin Baird, as well as a number of volunteers.

If you are interested in a public talk on this work, Robin Baird will be presenting at the Kona Science Cafe on June 19th

June 18th update

In the last four days we’ve surveyed off north Kona, south Kona, and offshore of Kona as far as 30 kilometers, with sightings of four different species of odontocetes. By far the most unusual sighting was a group of about 20 Risso’s dolphins, seen in 2,200 m depth offshore of Honaunau on June 18th. This was only our 11th sighting of this species in Hawaiʻi since we first started working here in 2000 – our last sighting was in April 2015. They are typically an offshore species, and are usually somewhat wary of boats, so are not easy to get close to for tagging or genetic sampling. This trip we’ve started collecting eDNA samples – water samples from the fluke prints of different species – in collaboration with the Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Laboratory of Oregon State University, and we collected one sample from the Risso’s dolphin group.

Risso’s dolphins acquire scars on the body as they age, which can be used to identify individuals. We’ve been collecting photos of Risso’s in all our previous encounters in order to set up a photo-ID catalog of this species in Hawaiʻi and were able to obtain good ID photos of more than 10 individuals from this encounter. Photo © Colin J. Cornforth.

Two juvenile Risso’s dolphins with a diverse array of body scars! Photo © Kimberly A. Wood

We’ve also had sightings of several more groups of short-finned pilot whales, as well as spinner dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins.

A pantropical spotted dolphin off north Kona June 16, 2017. Photo © Kimberly A. Wood

A Hawksbill Turtle seen off north Kona June 16, 2017. Photo © Colin J. Cornforth

On June 15th we encountered a group of about 10 bottlenose dolphins just south of Kailua-Kona. We were able to photo-identify the individuals present, and also deployed a LIMPET satellite tag on one individual, to track its movements. There are four island-associated populations of bottlenose dolphins recognized in Hawai‘i, based on photo-ID and genetics, but some of our tagging work in recent years is documenting some overlap among the stocks, so we are trying to get a better idea of the movements of individuals over periods of several weeks. The individual we tagged is one from our catalog, an adult male first documented off Hawai‘i Island in 2006.

June 14 update

Our first day off Kona involved dodging rain showers and minor engine problems, but we were able to encounter three groups of short-finned pilot whales during the morning, and obtained identification photos of about 40 different individuals among the three groups. These groups are likely part of the eastern main Hawaiian Islands resident community of short-finned pilot whales.

We were happy to see one newborn calf in one of the groups, identifiable as a newborn by the faint vertical lines on the side (“fetal folds”) as well as the lighter gray coloration. Short-finned pilot whales are our most frequently encountered species of odontocete in our work off Hawai‘i Island, representing about a quarter of all sightings, so we expect to see them many more times over the next two weeks.

The research vessel we’ll be using for this project, a 24’ Hurricane. Photo by Galen Craddock.

Our survey effort off Hawai‘i Island over the last 15 years.

Our survey effort off Hawai‘i Island during our only prior June field effort.