Rare Whale Birth Sighting
Off the coast of Maui, in a mid-size white catamaran, Marine Mammal Research Program Director Lars Bejder patiently launched and retrieved an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to survey the waters, making a major discovery.
By: Adara Pineda
15 May 2019
For almost two weeks, Lars Bejder and his Marine Mammal Research Program colleagues had been conducting studies on humpback whale bioenergetic demands – their moving energy – while migrating between Alaska and Hawaii.
Program Director Bejder and the crew were spending eight-hour work days on the catamaran, just off the coast of Maui, surveying the water for any trace of marine mammal activity. Sometimes the days were slow, but the mission to document these sea creatures inspired the researchers to patiently wait for that special moment.
In the middle of one of those work days, a buzz began to fill the air. One of the captains received a call from a nearby whale-watching group reporting commotion in the water. This was one of the moments that Bejder and the crew had been waiting for. But the news was bigger than they anticipated. There was an actual sighting of a newborn humpback whale calf and its mother.
The captain quickly shifted the boat into gear and Bejder prepared his autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). In a few moments, it was in the air searching for the two creatures. There was no time to waste, as the crew was about to take part in something monumental.
Bejder focused intently on the monitor, carefully guiding the AUV up high above the water with his controller.
One of the pilots on the boat was Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) Systems Program Coordinator Joshua Levy. Levy recalled what he saw on Bejder’s screen.
“The first thing that we saw just this small little calf on the screen of our patroller. It was pretty surreal,” Levy said. “Lars was extremely excited. We weren’t precisely sure how old the calf was, but he looked at the video and he knew it was a very very recent birth.”
In what the researchers consider as unprecedented documentation, aerial footage of a newborn calf was recorded. This is the closest researchers have gotten to a live birth in 25 years of study. The recording shows the calf just minutes after being born, with its soft floppy fins and its mother still bleeding.
“I'm sure that a lot of people have gotten close, but if you don't have that bird's eye view down it's difficult to see,” said Bejder. “So this was one, being at the right spot at the right time but also having the technology to be able to go up and see it right.”
Over the course of four weeks, earlier this year, Bejder and his team were able to gather data about nearly 300 whales across all ages, including calves, subadults and adults. In total his team conducted 243 AUV flights.
“I think one thing that's important is that these animals are really high up in the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are top predators, many of them, which means they are also sentinels of ecosystem health, ocean health, so by studying them we can say something about the health of the ecosystem as a whole.”
Further research on humpback whales continues to be one of the marine conservationists’ priorities, since researchers found a decline in whale sightings in the Hawaiian Islands. Scientists from a number of organizations such as the Keiki Kohala Project and the Oceanwide Science Institute found there was more than an 80 percent drop of whale sightings in this area from 2014 to 2018.
This research expedition is a small portion of Bejder’s nearly two decades worth of research on marine mammals. Using an AUV Bejder was able to get a view of the calf, which provides an important data point of measuring the whales.
“This particular datapoint is going to develop growth curves for different species, and this one's going to tell us what is the length at birth, to look at health across the population,” Bejder said. “So this will be one data point within that bigger picture.”
Documentation like the work Bejder’s team did is helping marine mammal conservationists move in the right direction in their research. They could not have completed this fieldwork if it wasn’t for the help of different organizations in the community, Bejder said.
Bejder would have been unable to conduct the fieldwork off Maui with the help of organizations such as ARL at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, the Ultimate Whale Watch, Pacific Whale Foundation and the Oceanwide Science Institute.
“It takes a village” is the mission statement on the Ultimate Whale Watch Maui’s website on research. Since 1982, Lee James’ business has been providing vessels to ocean-based researchers, such as Bejder, for fieldwork.
“There's a gap from getting from their office or the lab and actually getting to the field," James said. “That's what we like to try to help and bridge that gap. ... It's really exciting, and we feel privileged to be a part of something like that.”
When a researcher approaches James for help for their study, they can often work out an affordable budget that would otherwise be costly.
The Ultimate Whale Watch Maui is also a first responder for the Rescue Entanglement Network. His crew helps respond to the hundreds of humpback whale entanglement cases in Hawaii every year.
Often caught in fishing gear, marine life can suffer great physical harm and trauma as a result of entanglement. Animals risk the danger of drowning starving, and infection from the gear cutting and suffocating them.
“There's so much that comes from the ocean around us,” James said. “It's our wilderness, so if we are blind to what's going on there we don't have an idea of how to best use our resources to help the wilderness.”
It is through these organizations and marine-life-invested-individuals that researchers like Bejder are able to continue to access resources for their research. This breakthrough documentation is only a portion of the work that needs to be done.
MMRP plans to continue their research in April, spending a two-week sampling trip in the foraging grounds of southeast Alaska during which the team can measure whales who have returned from breeding grounds in Hawaii.
Their spring fieldwork will take place over the span of a five-month summer season starting in May.