As I drove down Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona town one early morning on Hawaii (Big) Island, I dodged a few cars that had veered to a halt off the side of road. The sight of one woman—her car parked catawampus—holding a camera to her face, made me look west.
An oversized, round orb glowed gold in the droplets of vog saturating the air, looking like an oversized set prop in the Hollywood musical Moulin Rouge.
Was it the sun? The clock on my rental car said 6:30 a.m. No, not the sun. The colorful attraction was the moon setting over Ahuena Heiau, a re-built Hawaiian sacred site back-dropped with a line of coconut palm trees. The scenic view lasted only a moment, and I didn’t get a picture, but it stuck with me, as pretty as a postcard but better, because I remember the catch in my breath and the quickening of my heart when my eyes took in the sight.
IN SEARCH OF ODONTOCETES
At Honokohau Marina, six biologists popped out of their van, hauling a dozen waterproof Pelican cases of all sizes and colors. They stashed their gear on a 27-foot Boston Whaler with military precision. Within a few minutes, we pushed off and motored out of the harbor. I took my spot on the bow pulpit, the extended prow of the boat–think hood ornament of a car.
My job as a volunteer on board would be to stand on the bow and scan the water 180-degrees, from left to right and back again and again and again and again and again and again. In search of odontocetes. Or, toothed whales and dolphins. Like spinner dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins. Even better, high priority species like short-finned pilot whales, melon-headed whales, pygmy killer whales and beaked whales. Best of all: false killer whales.
Like any good whale watcher, I would look for blows, breaches, lunges, dorsal fins, logging or any other whale behavior at the surface of the ocean.
If spotted, and if a high-priority species, and if conditions were right to allow tagging of the animal with a satellite device, then I would grab the high-speed video camera out of its Pelican case and record the tagging event.
But when I took my position on the bow, my breath caught and my heartbeat quickened for the second time in less than hour, as a brilliant sun rose over the typically shrouded, 8,271-foot mountain known as Hualalai. It felt like an auspicious start to the day. Maybe I’d finally see a false killer whale.
HAWAII’S UNKNOWN WHALE
Our destination: 35 kilometers off-shore. Earlier in the project, the team—organized by Cascadia Research Collective’s Robin Baird—had outfitted a false killer whale (pseudorca crassidens) with a GPS device, a sporty-looking gadget not much bigger than a couple 9-volt batteries with a wire antenna sticking out.
The false killer whale is the least abundant of 18 different species of odontocetes in Hawaii. Two genetically-differentiated populations of the species have been identified as resident to Hawaii. Not much is known about the pelagic—off-shore—group. But the second, known to be more insular and moving regularly among the islands, has been documented up to 68 miles off-shore. This is the group that Robin’s team has monitored around the waters of Hawaii researching for the past 12 years.
At 4:30 on the morning I went out with Robin, the tagged whale surfaced just as a polar orbiting satellite passed overhead. The animal’s latitude and longitude coordinates were relayed to the satellite and downloaded to a website. But it was now 7:00. A fast-moving animal 12 to 18 feet in length can cover some ground in two-and-a-half hours. Still, we had to try.
ON THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION
The false killer whale swims on the precipice of endangered species status. After realizing the population of the cetacean, named after its popular black-and-white cousin for the similarity in skull and teeth, had dropped from 470 individuals to 150 in just 20 years, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended protecting the species under the Endangered Species Act. That confirmation was expected mid November 2011—but it’s been delayed.
Besides the two-and-a-half-hour time difference and the added time it would take to motor to the area, there was something else—another challenge facing us. The seas. Later in the day, after we would return to the harbor, my sea legs still moving beneath me, I would check the day’s forecast from the National Weather Service. It would read: Gale warnings remain in effect for the Pailolo and Alenuihaha channels and southeast Big Island waters. The winds will continue to be funneled and accelerated around the terrain of the islands through Friday afternoon. A small craft advisory remains up for the remaining coastal waters due to the strong winds of 25 knots or greater and combined seas of 10 feet or greater.
Not far out of the harbor, we encountered a group of rough-toothed dolphins. We slowed to take photo-identification pictures. Shortly thereafter, we came across a group of pantropical spotted dolphins. And, then, another group, and I decided spotted dolphins are the Michael Jordan of the dolphin world. Boy, can they can leap. Even the babies that were not much bigger than MJ’s size 13 Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes were catching serious air.
We continued heading away from the island until there was no land to be seen in any direction. No sailboats. No fishing boats. No tour boats. Nothing. Except, we hoped, false killer whales.
The ocean’s swells grew taller, and I was sent to the stern for ballast. “Do you get seasick,” Robin asked me.
“Not usually,” I said and continued scanning, my stomach cooperating for now. Something out of the corner of my eye arrested the swinging of my head.
“Do you see something?” Robin asked.
“Bird on the water,” another biologist, Aliza, called out from the bow before I could spit out the words. It was a wedge-tailed shearwater feeding on squid bits and pieces.
EATING AT THE TOP
“A pseudorca could have brought that up,” Robin said. False killer whales like to carry their prey to the surface and pass it around before settling down to the business of eating, which can involve sharing, possibly a result of the cooperative nature of their foraging and the strong group bonds for which this species is known. When the team deployed the satellite tag earlier in the trip, they saw a leaping animal 3.2 kilometers away. “A 15-foot pseudorca displaces a lot of water,” Robin said. That is, they make a big splash. As the boat got closer, they discovered an animal tossing a mahimahi around in the air. When false killer whales are foraging, they make a display of it. If pantropical spotted dolphins are the Michael Jordan of cetaceans, then the false killer whales are the Emeril.
Robin scooped up the squid with a dip net, and I bagged the slimy tentacles, labeled the bag and tossed it in the cooler.
False killer whales primarily feed on large game fish like ahi, ono and mahimahi, the same catch that commercial and recreational fishermen target. But a nice size tako makes a good meal, too.
Diet is a key factor in the population decline of false killer whales. First, there is fisheries interaction. False killer whales are the number one by-catch in Hawaii’s off-shore longline fishery. False killer whales also take fish off recreational and commercial fishing lines, increasing the chances of ingesting fish hooks in the process. An estimated eight animals per year die or are seriously injured in this way.
Second, prey size. The average ahi caught today weighs 60 pounds, a 50% reduction from 60 years ago, which means false killer whales have to expend more energy on foraging.
Third, toxins. Because their diet primarily comes from the top end of the food chain, false killer whales are ingesting higher levels of persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs, pesticides and flame retardants. These pollutants may not kill false killer whales outright, but they do weaken their immune system. When Robin’s team of biologists encounters false killer whales, they attempt to take photo-identifying images, capture tissue biopsies, in addition to outfitting animals with various kinds of tags—satellite or otherwise. Results from three of nine such biopsy samples indicated high enough levels of pollutants to potentially compromise their health.
THE SEARCH CONTINUED
At 9:05, we got another message from the Argos Data Collection System. It was a category 3 reading (translation: good) with a plus/minus 150 meters degree of accuracy. We arrived in the area about 30 to 45 minutes later. We zigged. We zagged. Headed north. West. South. The seas rolled. But no pseudorcas made an appearance.
False killer whales are known to live into their 60s. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 years of age, and they calve in six to seven year intervals. They also experience menopause starting in their 40s. This means the population is not quick to rebound from losses. Their biology puts them at a disadvantage for species survival.
After several hours in small craft advisory seas, Robin turned the boat for the southeast. Eventually, hints of land returned. Waves backed down. And, still, we scanned the ocean’s surface. I learned to distinguish between splashes and white caps crawling down the faces of breaking waves.
I was sent back to the bow. Aliza asked me what my next adventure was, and I told her a vegan holiday cooking class. That led to restaurant talk. Fresh Mint on Maui. Bar Acuda on Kauai. Café Maharani on Oahu. In the middle of a sentence about a new Oahu restaurant named Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar, Aliza sopped. “11:00. Something brown. On the surface,” she called out.
A NEW LIFE LIST SIGHTING
And the crew sprang to life. Aliza went for a camera with a long, telephoto lens. A couple went for the tagging equipment. Someone else punched a waypoint for the GPS coordinates. For a second, I was left standing there, alone on the bow, stunned. Then, I cleared the area and tracked down the video camera.
“Beaked whale,” I heard someone say. “Two animals.”
It turned out to be an adult, all scarred up from cookie cutter shark wounds, and a calf. They submerged soon after we approached. We paused on the water, scanning, left to right, right to left. Five minutes went by. Ten. At 12 minutes, they surfaced 1500 feet away. But, again, as soon as we approached, they slipped beneath the sea. We played this game of hide-and-seek for an hour-and-a-half. Unlike false killer whales, beaked whales are shy. Finally, the adult and calf propelled a third of their bodies out of the water. “Oh, head lunging,” Robin said. “That usually means they’re heading out.”
We did likewise and motored back to Honokohau Harbor. We may not have seen any false killer whales on this day, but we did encounter a new odontocete for my life list, Cuvier’s beaked whale, and while I’m happy with that, I know I won’t be able to board a boat in Hawaii again without my head turning left to right, right to left, scanning the horizon for the elusive false killer whale.
Another Whale Besides the Humpback first published at OutriggerHawaii.