LIHUE — Scientists and researchers kicked off the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey on Thursday.
It’s a six-month tour of nearly 1.8 million square nautical miles through the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with the goal of estimating the numbers of whales and dolphins in the waters.
“We’re covering the area with our two ships in hopes of collecting all the data we need for re-evaluating population structure, abundance and health, and examining habitat,” said Erin Oleson, co-chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This tour is the third in the series and is being done to satisfy Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act requirements. Previously, research surveys were conducted in 2002 and in 2010.
This time around, scientists will be using a hexocopter drone as well as new acoustic tools.
“We’ll be using (the drone) to try and answer science questions about the various species we come across,” Oleson said.
New acoustic monitoring technology, like drifting acoustic packages, will help increase encounter rates with the estimated 38 separate cetacean populations and 25 different species throughout the islands.
“We’re eavesdropping in on their navigation, communication and foraging efforts in order to find the species,” Oleson said.
Researchers will use tower deck-mounted binoculars to search the area — dubbed “big eye binoculars” because of their size.
“We need the help of the large binoculars to get a good look the species,” Oleson said.
Conservationists on Kauai are encouraged that NOAA is again focusing research efforts on cetaceans, though some suggest the timing of the survey could be adjusted to fit the humpback whale migration season.
“We hope they study the migratory whales also,” said Gordon LaBedz, of the conservation and education group Kohola Leo. “The kohola (humpbacks) arrive in December and January, they might want to start their project in January.”
Scientists acknowledge they might miss some humpback whale activity with their July through December schedule, but they have to finish before winter’s waves arrive.
“We’ll be watching the humpbacks, but unfortunately we’re not hitting the peak of their seasons here,” Oleson said.
Seabirds are also on the research docket. The goal is to quantify feeding flocks and learn what they’re eating.
“When we see any endangered birds, we’ll make a note of that and I think the sea distribution of those birds will be interesting for managers,” Oleson said.
NOAA is teaming up with the Navy, as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center for the expedition.
The first half of the survey will happen aboard the NOAA Ship Sette and the second half will be on the NOAA Ship Lasker.
The zone extends from a couple miles off shore to the edge of the Economic Enterprise Zone, 200 nautical miles off shore. There’s a chance people will be able to see the ships from island shores.
“You probably will either see us, or the folks on the Lasker showing up later around the summer,” Oleson said.