Sometimes, it seems, large whales and talking dolphins get all the attention. Yes, we love these animals, too – how can you not? A humpback whale launching itself from the sea like a giant, blubbery rocket and crashing down with a triumphant spray of seafoam can impress even the most curmudgeonly of whale watchers.
But the pantheon of cetaceans includes far more than just our charismatic, coastal kin. Preferring deeper water and diving for more than an hour at a time, some species of whales and dolphins are rarely seen, and seldom studied. These animals slip stealthily between the waves at the surface and retreat into a deep blue world that we still know very little about.
It takes a determined observer to learn the patterns of a pod of dwarf sperm whales, for example, and predict where they’ll surface next.
Robin Baird, a biologist at the Cascadia Research Collective, has spent years doing just this, in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. He once lived on Maui, but now visits the islands several times a year, looking for the region’s rarest and most elusive whales and dolphins. Rising straight out of deep ocean water, the Hawaiian Islands offer easy access to the realm of deep-diving creatures. Baird’s work, part of which is funded by the U.S. Navy, is providing unprecedented insights into the animals’ social structures, the risks introduced by human activities in the region, and how the different species share the waters around the islands.
By now, Baird and his colleagues have probably logged more hours studying these unusual species than any other crew on the planet. They recently published a study summarizing 1,758 sightings between 2000 and 2012. Among other observations, the work included a calculation of how frequently a species is seen in the region: Average sightings per 100 hours on the water. Some whales, like humpbacks, will be seen hundreds of times in a 100 hours. Others, like false killer whales, come in at 0.64 — or, almost never.
Baird’s mission? “We work with every species we encounter,” he says. “But we spend the most time with the species we encounter the least often.”
Full story: Wired