Overview

Between August 25 and September 6, 2014, an international team of scientists, led by Nan Hauser (Cook Islands Whale Research / Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation) will tag and track seven humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters off Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  Hauser's local team of whale researchers will be joined by Dr. Alex Zerbini, a leading whale behavioral ecologist with N.O.A.A.'s National Marine Mammal Lab, Alaska Fisheries Science Center (Seattle, WA, U.S.A.) / Cascadia Research Collective (Olympia, WA, U.S.A.) / Instituto Aqualie (Brazil) and Dr. Travis Horton, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.


Alex Zerbini (left), Nan Hauser (middle), and Travis and Zachary Horton (right; Zach's the cute one)



It has been seven years since whales were last tracked off Rarotonga (see: The Great Whale Trail), and much has happened since then.  Most notably, the Oceania population of humpback whales (i.e. those southern hemisphere whales breeding from the east coast of Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east) was assessed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (see: IUCN Red List).  Unlike other populations of humpbacks, recent genetic research has revealed that the Oceania population simply hasn't recovered quickly from whaling.  Seventy years ago there were perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 humpbacks in the Oceania population.  The population now is one-tenth that size.  Everything we do as scientists - whether it be tracking, photo identification, genetic fingerprinting, acoustics, isotopic analyses, or behavioral studies - is aimed squarely at providing the scientific information and understanding required to ensure the Oceania population recovers to the point that it will no longer be considered an endangered species.

This year, our primary goal is to deploy seven satellite monitored tracking devices on humpback whales migrating past Rarotonga.  From these devices we will gain unique insights into the movement, migratory and navigational behaviors of great whales.  Such movement data is crucial information relevant to the recovery of Oceania humpbacks against a backdrop of marine resource development and  rapid environmental change.  How can we protect the habitats of an endangered species when we don't even know where those habitats are located?

The spatial and temporal data we collect will go far to ensuring that scientifically informed decision making processes are viable.  The spatial and temporal data we collect may very well help to save the whales.

Travis W. Horton
August 10, 2014