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Cascadia Research Collective: Marine Mammal Surveys off the Kona Coast

by Cameron Dabney

Dolphin Quest Hawaii’s Regional Education Supervisor Cameron Dabney joined the Cascadia Research Collective team in the field this past July on an incredible marine mammal study off the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. This is a first-hand account of her experience.

I arrive at the harbor early, ecstatic about my day ahead. The air and water are still and the reflections of the boats glisten as the morning light peaks over the mountains. The smell of fish and gasoline waft in the distance. Mesmerized by the calmness of the early harbor morning, I sit on the dock acknowledging that one of my lifetime dreams is about to come true: I am about to go out and do marine mammal surveys with Robin Baird, world-renowned marine mammal biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective.

When Robin and his crew arrive we promptly prepare the boat, check and load the gear, and set off. There are six of us onboard, all equipped with a pair of binoculars and a camera. As we make our way out of the harbor, Robin calls down from the helm: “How far away is that buoy? How about that channel marker?” – trying to size up our ability to estimate distance on the water. Thankfully, my guess isn’t too far off…

Within moments of exiting the harbor, we are surrounded by a pod of Spinner dolphins. This is a common and well-studied species, so we note the sighting, take a few photos and carry on. This gives us a chance to review “the rules”: scan 180 degrees, call out any splashes or anything resembling a dolphin or whale (or bird), and don’t get distracted by conversations. Check, check, and check.

We head north towards Kawaihae, and again, within minutes have four Bottlenose dolphins riding our bow. We note the sighting, take our photos, and continue on our way up the Kona coast.  “Dwarf Sperm Whales!” calls out Robin. This is my first time ever seeing them. A flurry of photos snap and we catalog their every move. This is a short encounter, as they head down on a dive.

After hours on the water, with several dolphin and whale sightings logged, we head back just as the wind starts to pick up (making it incredibly difficult to distinguish between white cap and dolphin splash). Windblown and tired from the day’s sun we sit back, silent in thought, and enjoy the deep blue water passing us by. Already, I anxiously await our next trip out.

Day two is much different… We head south, far offshore. Hours go by with no dolphins and no whales, just a lot of birds. Conversations are limited as we all scan the water. Finally, miles away from land, two of us spot a small glimpse of what looks like a spout. As we pull up, everyone is excited, even Robin. “Cameras ready,” he says a bit frantically. We slowly make our approach scanning and searching for them. They surface. Risso’s Dolphins! Four of them. Robin exclaims that this rare pelagic species has only been seen eight other times before in Hawaii during their field projects. All eyes scan intently. “We’ve got three over here!” “One is over here.” Cameras are now pointed at all angles snapping away. They dive down for a few minutes, giving us a chance to deploy a hydrophone (underwater microphone). We stick with the pod for several minutes until they finally disappear into the depths.

With the wind sneaking up on us, we head in. Robin calls me up to the helm and we chat about his research. He shows me his new False Killer Whale brochures and talks about his satellite tag work. He explains how he uses ultrasound images of the dorsal fins of Dolphin Quest animals to help better his tagging methodology. I enjoy getting to know him and hearing about his appreciation for Dolphin Quest.

Cascadia’s Hawaii-based research primarily focuses on odontocetes (toothed whales), assessing their population structure, size, movements, habitat use, and behavior. The photos taken of each animal can be used for individual animal identification and population estimate studies. In most cases a hydrophone, used to record any vocalizations the animals may be making, is also deployed. This data can be used in a number of studies. Click here to learn more about this project on the Cascadia Research Collective’s web site. You can also find them on Facebook!

His work has made such an impact on our current understanding of the ecology, biology, and threats of these animals. In a recent publication, he describes how toxins accumulate in the blubber of Hawaiian False Killer Whales and explains how studying this species can help indicate the overall health of the ocean. We use this study to teach children about the harmful effects marine debris can have on all ocean animals.

Let’s be honest, it is not hard to get people to love dolphins and whales. They are charismatic and majestic beings. But as Baba Dioum so eloquently put: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.” Organizations like Cascadia and Dolphin Quest serve to educate and inspire people. Learning more about these animals will only deepen our understanding of what we can do to protect them. Our collaborative effort of combining science and education touch the hearts of minds of so many and make long-lasting impressions on those who have the unique opportunity to connect with these animals.