Study Identifies New Wintering Grounds for Humpback Whales in Hawaiian Islands
DURHAM, N.C. – A new study finds that humpback whales, once hunted to near extinction in the North Pacific, are now wintering in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuaea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"It was quite surprising actually. Whenever we surveyed in shallow, warm areas, we found humpback whales," says Dave Johnston, adjunct assistant professor of marine science and conservation at the Nicholas School, who was the lead author of the study.
Johnston is team leader for cetacean research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. He is an alumnus of the Nicholas School.
He and his team made their observations during a NOAA research cruise across the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago in March 2007.
Lynne E. Williams, a doctoral student in marine science and conservation at the Nicholas School, was a member of the team and co-authored the new study.
During the cruise, the researchers observed small calves accompanying some of the whales in the northwestern Hawaiian waters, and also witnessed humpbacks conducting behaviors usually associated with breeding. This, Johnston says, is evidence that the endangered humpbacks are wintering in these remote waters. Prior to the study, it was believed that the species wintered only in the waters around the main Hawaiian Islands.
Johnston’s team estimated that approximately twice the amount of suitable wintering habitat is found in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands as in the main section of the archipelago.
The team published the study online on September 14 in Endangered Species Research. The paper is accessible at http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2007/3/n003p249.pdf.
The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was designated last year and is the largest fully protected marine conservation area in the world. Very little is known about the whales that live or migrate there.
Johnston is planning a follow-up cruise to the area in February 2008. "I’m excited to get back up there," he says. "Every time we leave port we embark on a voyage of discovery."