Thursday, 28 August 2014

Tag Count 10

Another exciting day in Rarotonga - our first day on the water. Nan and her research team got the two boats - tagging boat and support boat - into the water in the AM and took the tagging boat for a test drive. Unfortunately it failed.

Nobody ever said this was going to be easy!

Some emergency repairs (bad fuel seems to be the culprit) were done in short order and both boats were out on the water by early afternoon. By this time the winds and swell had picked up a bit, so we focussed our search for taggable whales to the lee-side (the north side on this day). We didn't have to wait long to have first contact. Just a few minutes out of the harbor we spotted a mother and calf heading east and we picked up a couple juvenile males (most likely) heading west not long thereafter.



But seeing whales and tagging them successfully are two completely different things. Now let me come clean here - I'd never seen a humpback whale before yesterday and those 4 were seen from the beach for ~10 minutes. Today, I had the extreme fortune of seeing 7 humpbacks in our first hour on the water. I was part of the support boat team and we had the job of spotting, collecting sloughed skin following breaches and flukes for isotopic analysis, and documenting everything. Natalie did detailed documentations of everything we saw with a voice recorder, Alyssa was chief skin catcher and vocalisation recorder (we got a ~20 minute recording of a new song today!), Nan's daughter Ally drove the boat (masterfully!), and I was chief photographer (I have a lot to learn about filming wildlife at sea!). The highlight of my day was seeing a humpback slowly raise its back out of the water not 40 meters from our boat and exhale. The grace and fluidity of the movement was striking.

The tagging boat team consisted of Nan, Alex, Federico, and Abigail. Nan drove, Alex spotted and coordinated the movements, Federico was the wisened tagger, and Abigail was on GoPro (I can't wait to see their footage!). The tagging boat is one of the fastest and most maneuverable boats on Rarotonga. It needs to be. It is able to quickly catch up to a spotted whale and position the tagging team for an extended low speed observation period. Once within 100m the team assesses the whale's behavior, size and ultimate suitability for tagging. So although we saw several whales today - and a few of them were deemed taggable - we did not deploy any of our ten tags as no clear deployment shots were available. The last thing we want to do is improperly deploy a tag and expose either the whale or the team to increased risk of harm. Alex and Federico showed the wisdom of their combined experience tagging whales today by not acting on half-chances.

The sun sets on our first day on the water.

So we all now go to bed, dreaming of whales, but also smiling - knowing that tomorrow is another day with new and exciting adventures. If we are patient and we get a bit of good fortune we will tag our first whale of the season.

- Travis Horton