Saturday 30 August 2014

Tag Count 8

Another day on the water - another tag successfully deployed!

It was markedly windier on the water today - which meant even larger swells and more wind shear on the water's surface. White caps everywhere even on the lee-side of the island particularly in the morning. We again focussed our efforts in the calmer waters just offshore of Avarua, the main township on Rarotonga.

The local fishermen have been instrumental in providing us accurate and timely information regarding whale locations, sighting times, and direction of movement. Our successes are largely a result of the excellent and collaborative nature of the relationship Nan has established with the fishermen over the past 17 years. Thank you all so very much and particularly to Akura Fishing!

Perhaps the best news of the day came when we got back to Nan's house tonight - Alex checked the Argos satellite system and BOTH TAGS ARE TRANSMITTING WHALE LOCATIONS!

Federico gets in position for deployment of our second tag (August 29, 2014 - Rarotonga)

I am particularly thrilled by this news as it means everything is fundamentally working. We're getting the job done and we will have new movement/migration data from the Rarotonga humpback whale population to compare to previous years (2006-2007). I spent the after dinner hours modeling Earth's Main magnetic field, as well as its rock anomaly field, in the area immediately surrounding Rarotonga itself. By taking a closer look at the whales' movements in the waters around the island itself, rather than in open ocean far away from any coastlines, I hope to assess whether or not there are any systematic patterns in the whale movements in magnetic coordinate space(s). We'll also look at the geographic coordinates as well of course!

While I was running computer models on my computer (thank you Stefan Maus!), Federico was busy prepping another tag. Hopefully we'll hit the water early in the AM tomorrow with the forecasted lower winds and three more tags ready to be deployed. It's hard to pass on the excitement and enthusiasm we all have been carrying these past several days. We are making moments that we will all cherish for many years to come and every minute of my time here in Raro has been beyond enjoyable. It's a tremendous honor to be able to share these moments with you!

More to come tomorrow on the whale locations provided by Argos and some of the things I've learned about whale movement behavior in Rarotonga! Oh, and wouldn't it be swell if we deployed another tag or two. Here's hoping!

- Travis Horton

Friday 29 August 2014

Tag Count 9

We did it! We have successfully deployed our first satellite transmitter tag in Rarotonga, 2014!!

At 11:35AM on August 28, 2014 Federico had a clean shot and he took it. The tag was deployed in one of two sub-adults (roughly 5-7 years old by best guess) that we followed for close to an hour prior to deploying the tag. The tag was deployed on a whale with a fairly recognizable dorsal fin - see below (keep your eyes peeled for this one folks in Tonga, Samoa, and New Caledonia!). The tag was duty cycled to turn on at 5:00PM local time (3AM on August 29, UTC), so we are still waiting for the Argos system to return our first locations. I'll keep you posted!

Tag placement for our first Rarotonga satellite tag deployment in seven years. Note the distinct dorsal fin shape on this 5-7 year old sub-adult. (August 28, 2014)

We followed both whales for an hour following deployment (they stayed together both before and after the tag was deployed). No noticeable changes in either whale's behavior was observed. We thought to tag the second whale, but the second tag was in the support boat to ensure that it didn't get rained on (rain damages the degradable tape we use to hold back the tag's flanges). The tagging boat pulled alongside us at 12:40 and we decided to celebrate by eating lunch while also getting a debrief from the tagging team.

Overall it was another beautiful day on the water and we saw several humpback whales - hard to ask for more than what we got today. We are fairly confident that many of the whales we saw today were some of the same ones we saw yesterday - based on coloration, fluke shape/color pattern, dorsal fin shape, and behavior - but this requires scientific analysis of the data we've been collecting out in the boats. We've been taking heaps of photos, we now have two 20 minute recordings of humpback song(s), skin samples, one tagged deployed, and nine to go!

A one to two week old humpback whale calf sun-bathing, belly-side up, just off the reef near Black Rock, Rarotonga. (August 28, 2014)

To give you an idea as to what some of the follow-up science involves, I've quickly put together the below fluke images. The image on the top is the dorsal surface of a whale's fluke and the image in the middle is a 'magnetic lasso' trace of the same fluke's edge. Although these top two images do not capture the ventral surface coloration pattern, the shape of the serrated edge of the fluke potentially be used to help confirm a re-sighting of this whale sometime in the future. The bottom image is of the ventral surface of a different whale's fluke - notice the difference in serration and the patterned colorations? These are some of the key features we use to ID whales.

Top - Dorsal (back) surface of one whale's fluke; Middle - A computer generated trace of the fluke above; Bottom - Ventral (bottom) surface of a different whale's fluke.

One of the key steps in any scientific research process is to document what you've observed. The fluke and dorsal fin photos will be compiled in a database and ultimately made available to the wider humpback whale community for possible matching between different years and/or different places.

Here's hoping we have another successful day tomorrow and my fingers are crossed for some Argos location data in the morning!

Thanks for following along, folks. We're well and truly into the journey...

- Travis Horton

Thursday 28 August 2014

Media Coverage

The Rarotonga 2014 Humpback Whale satellite tagging team is grateful to all the media exposure we've been getting over the past few days!

 For those interested, here are some links:

Cook Islands News (newspaper)

Cook Islands Television (11 minute video)

60 Minutes (U.S.A. - replay on August 14, 2014 of Oct. 2013 interview with Nan Hauser)

NewsTalk ZB has a small piece on our research on-line and the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand has released a press release.

More information is always available (Thanks to the great work of Byron Brown, one Nan's core team members!) at

Off to the water!  Happy Birthday Madeleine!!  Daddy loves you so much kiddo!!

-Travis Horton

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

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Preparing the tags...

23:00 August 26, 2014

After a morning of interviews (NewstalkZB; Cook Islands News; Cook Islands TV) and a midday session sighting in of the scope on our pneumatic line thrower (that's how we'll be deploying the tags this year - see the video below!), the team spent the afternoon at the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Center.  The Whale and Wildlife Center is one of my favorite places on Rarotonga - I learn something absolutely fascinating every time I go (today I learned that sea turtles slow their heart rates dramatically while diving to feed - this allows them to stay down longer). We were at the center so Nan could give a talk to a group of U.S. study abroad students (IES program) who are at the University of Canterbury this winter semester. Imagine my surprise to hop out of the back of Nan's Whale Research ute (that's the austral word for 'pick-up truck') only to see a couple of the students I was just teaching last week in lecture theaters at UC!

From the Whale and Wildlife Center, it was off to dinner with some of our new friends from the Wildlife Trust's Living Seas project. This was a very special evening - 4 humpbacks, a mother and calf with two male escorts were swimming past just outside the lagoon as we drove up. An awesome start to a fantastic dinner of fish burgers and chips (aka French fries). We were even lucky enough to get a private viewing of a Living Seas documentary on Grey Reef Shark feeding behavior in Coral Canyon, French Polynesia - Simply EPIC! Thanks, Phil!!

Back at HQ, Alex and Frederico got stuck into the task of sterilizing the satellite tags while I looked up the Argos satellite passage times in the South Pacific for the next few months.  We need to program the tags to transmit to the satellites at specified times of the day in order to preserve battery life and maximize data quality/scientific outcomes. Thus, we want to program the tags such that they transmit when there are largest possible number of satellite connections available in the region. We achieve this by picking the times of the day when there are 2-3 satellites in transmission range. There are now only 6 Argos satellites remaining and their orbital periods are spread across the 24-hour day. Apparently all the Argos satellites are past their initial life expectancies, so there is significant motivation to get sat track data while the satellites are still operational!

These are crucially important aspects of tagging that I hadn't fully appreciated - this is the first time Alex and I have been together on a tagging trip despite our 7-year international collaborations together (the financial pressures on our research are not insignificant). Ultimately, Alex and I programmed 3 of the 10 tags for possible deployment tomorrow AM.  We chose a daily 3 hours off - 8 hours on - 4 hours off - 7 hours on - 2 hours off duty cycle for these three tags. This will maximize the potential for gaining the highest quality data, while also capturing the dawn and dusk periods - natural time stamps that animals might use as part of their navigational decision-making process.

So we're off to tag in the AM all going well! I will send along an update as soon as I can...

Thanks for following along, folks!


Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Team!

The 2014 Rarotonga Humpback Whale Tagging Team! (from left to right: Hsuan; Abigail; John; Alyssa; Natalie; Frederico; Travis; Nan; Alex)

It's been an amazing and eventful first half-day on Rarotonga! The team just finished interviews with Cook Islands television and the Cook Islands News (the local newspaper). Frederico and Alex are trialling the tag deployment in the yard now. All photos were taken at Nan's spectacular home - and the nexus of Cook Islands Whale Research - on Rarotonga!

Nan's new research office (Stephanie, a research season volunteer, was working on fluke matching photo editing when I took this photo) in the side yard at CI Whale Research HQ. Not a bad view.

Close ups of the 2014 Humpback Whale Tagging Team - top row (l to r): Nan; Alex; Natalie; Federico, Byron. bottom row (l to r) John; Abigail; Alyssa; Hsuan, Ali)

More to come - including whales!!

The Team has Assembled

Greetings from sunny Rarotonga!

I have arrived in Raro and the team is now fully assembled.  Alex and Frederico have been busy preparing the satellite tag deployment equipment, while Abigail and Alyssa worked late into the night editing recent drone+GoPro video for a presentation to an international drone company. Natalie has been an invaluable source of coordination and planning - she is always anticipating and prioritizing the key next steps to keep the team moving forward. Nan and I have spent the morning running errands (most importantly sourcing 100% acetone for disinfecting the tags, and getting food for the team back at HQ).  Head quarters for this whole operation is Nan's house.  It is bustling with activity - 7 of the team spent the night here last night after an epic day yesterday - and we are well on our way to deploying our first tag either later today or tomorrow!

In other important news - the opening of Marae Moana/Cook Islands Marine Park offices yesterday was a smashing success. Several local and international dignitaries attended the ceremony, including Prime Minister Henry Puna. Chairman and CEO of Conservation International, Peter Seligmann, made a massive show of support by funding two additional satellite tags (we are now up to 10, I think this all Alex brought, so a max for this year - but there's always next year!).  Thank you so very much Henry and Peter for your support of Marae Moana and Cook Islands Whale Research. We couldn't do it without you!

And for those of you interested in what we're up to and media coverage of these activities: 60 Minutes (U.S.A.) replayed the Oct. 2013 episode with Nan - check it out at here! - just this past Sunday. Radio New Zealand National has contacted me about a possible interview, the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand is working up a press release (it might be out by now?), Cook Islands TV just pulled in the drive to do an interview, and the Cook Islands newspaper just showed up as well. Huge momentum and positivity on Happy Valley Road, CI!

I will post some photos tonight and provide an update on the actual humpback whales and tagging activities. I promise to mix in some science as well!  Stay tuned....

Monday 25 August 2014

The journey begins...

I'm finally on my way to Rarotonga!  Sitting here in Auckland international I've learned (with free internet access for 30 minutes) that the Muri Beach Club Hotel on Rarotonga has sponsored an 8th satellite tag!  Thank you so much for your support MBCH!  Nan tells me there were 10 whales just outside the lagoon yesterday and Alex Zerbini has arrived from Seattle.  Lastly, today is a special day in Rarotonga as the Cook Islands Marine Park - Marae Moana celebrated the opening of their offices in Avarua.  Way to go team!  And a special thanks to Conservation International and local hero Kevin Iro for making the marine park a major step towards sustainable development and conservation of the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone.

More to come folks!  Will introduce the team and Whale Research HQ in my next posts once on island.


Wednesday 13 August 2014

This is a blog about journeys.

We all make them. Some short. Some long. But I doubt you've ever seen anything like the journey we are about to take...

Every year, humpback whales migrate from warm tropical calving grounds to highly productive cold-water feeding areas in the higher latitudes. They'll gorge themselves all summer on plankton, krill  and small fish only to turn back and swim more than 5000km to the crystal clear waters from which they set out 9-10 months earlier. Every year this journey unfolds - a continuous cycle largely out of sight and out of mind.

Join us as in late August, 2014 as we follow the humpbacks! Tracing their paths with satellites and computers - watching them, eager to learn. Exploring our own journeys as we hope they allow us to explore theirs.

Travis W. Horton
August 9, 2014

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Just 2 weeks to go!

Only two weeks until Nan Hauser, Alex Zerbini, and I meet in Rarotonga to start our 2014 humpback whale tagging research! Nan has been working tirelessly studying the whales off Rarotonga this (austral) winter, and she and her team have graciously provided some inspiring material (you can always find more at!). Enjoy!

August 10, 2014 - Nan and the team go out to check on a singing humpback report from the local fishermen and find...

But sure enough, those fishermen were right, a male humpback (the singers) was not far behind!
Putting drones and go-pros to good use!  Simply amazing...thanks Nan!

Nan, you are a legend!