There are several species of whales that are particularly challenging to study, including four species of beaked whales and a population of endangered false killer whales around the Hawaiian Islands.
Data on the population and behavior of these species is important in accurately assessing their status and the potential impacts of increasing human activity. However, study of both beaked whales and false killer whales is limited by their rare nature. To overcome these challenges, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), and the Cetacean Research Program (CRP) have been pioneering new techniques to better estimate their species abundances. By using cutting edge technology to listen for and gather traces of these mysterious giants, researchers hope to drastically increase the small amount known about these enigmatic creatures.
Researchers have called beaked whales: “The least understood group of large mammals on Earth.” These whales are amazingly elusive: they conduct extremely deep dives and spend very little time at the water’s surface. Although the size of an elephant, some species have never been seen alive. For example, one species in Hawaiian waters – the Cross Seamount beaked whale – has only been identified by its vocalizations.
Insular false killer whales, the population that is resident to the main Hawaiian Islands, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are the least abundant of all the toothed whales found in Hawaiian waters, with a population estimated at 171 individuals. This group is in decline, likely caused in part by longline fishing. These whales feed off of longline‐caught fish, and in some cases become hooked or entangled with the fishing gear, leading to death or serious injury.
The team will use a combination of environmental DNA (eDNA) and passive acoustic techniques. The data provided by these approaches will begin to fill data gaps that are crucial to accurate population estimation and feed into future survey efforts. eDNA is DNA from animal cells that is collected from the environment rather than directly sampled from an individual organism. Gathering and understanding eDNA from water samples collected near a whale sighting could greatly increase the success rate of genetic sampling.
The team will deploy three Drifting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders (DASBRs) at locations of known beaked whale occurrence off the west coast of Oahu and the southeastern coast of Maui. DASBRs are free drifting vertical acoustic recording arrays that measure whale vocalizations. While the array is drifting the team will conduct CTD casts to collect water samples for eDNA analysis and associate the genetic information with any acoustic detection of beaked whales.
During the operations, scientists will watch for false killer whales. If a group is sighted, the team will deploy a small boat to collect photo ID, eDNA and biopsy samples to gather information on group composition and numbers.
The combination of this data will allow NOAA to better understand the movement and make-up of these mysterious whale species. Little is known about the Hawaiian Islands beaked whale populations and the potential impacts of increasing human activity in the area on their populations. Accurate population assessments are crucial in order to assess the maximum level of human‐caused mortality that is sustainable for these populations.