MANELE BAY, Lanai — Robin Baird was down at the docks before sunrise March 7, eager to get back out on the water to search for endangered false killer whales off the coast of Lanai.
It was Day 7 of a 21-day field project funded by private donations, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Species Recovery Grant to the state of Hawaii.
Baird, a research biologist with the Olympia, Washington-based Cascadia Research Collective, and his four-person crew had yet to see any false killer whales this trip as they boarded their chartered 24-foot Zodiac Hurricane.
The boat was rigged with front and rear observation platforms and the team was armed with laser-mounted cameras that determine an animal’s length, GoPros for underwater footage, binoculars and an air rifle to deploy satellite tags that let scientists track the animal’s movements over the course of a few weeks.
Their work plays a crucial role in management decisions and has been used in lawsuits when the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to act. That agency, which faces pressure from commercial fishing interests, has been sued several times by environmental groups to take action to protect false killer whales.
“Historically, a major obstacle to securing adequate protection for Hawaii’s false killer whales has been the lack of basic scientific information; how many animals are out there, where are they, how many distinct populations,” said David Henkin, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit that has represented the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network in lawsuits.
“Robin Baird has dedicated himself to answering those critical questions,” Henkin said, adding that Baird’s extensive body of work identifying, cataloging and tracking false killer whales around Hawaii “has been critical in establishing the existential threats that longline fishing poses to these vulnerable animals.”
Baird’s decades-long fascination with false killer whales — a type of dolphin that looks similar to an orca, minus the white spot — stems in part from their connection to humans.
There are stories and photos of false killer whales sharing their meals with humans going back more than 30 years. Dan McSweeney was researching the species off the Kona coast in 1984 when a false killer whale swam up to him with a large yellowfin tuna.
Baird recounts the incident in his book, “The Lives of Hawai’i’s Dolphins and Whales,” published in November.
“The whale stopped a couple of meters away and opened its mouth, letting the fish go, and the momentum carried the fish toward Dan. The whale was obviously offering the fish to him, and Dan reached out and took it,” Baird writes.
“The false killer whale started blowing bubbles, moved away, then turned rapidly and came back, stopping next to him again. Dan pushed the fish back toward the whale; it took it slowly and deliberately, then moved away and joined its companions. The whales passed the fish back and forth and started to consume it, and all had a share.”
“Other species don’t do this,” Baird said as he steered the research vessel off the west coast of Lanai. “It must reflect that false killer whales somehow view humans as something they can relate to. That’s unusual.”
False killer whales also have a similar taste in seafood. Mahi mahi, ono and ahi are all on their menu, much as they are at seafood restaurants around Hawaii.
But with commercial fishermen and false killer whales targeting the same species, the whales end up getting tangled in fishing lines and inadvertently hooked, which can be fatal.
Cascadia studied the photos available of false killer whales in the main Hawaiian Islands to examine fishery interactions. Weeding out the photos that were of poor quality, the team was able to identify 73 false killer whales. Of those, four had dorsal fin injuries and 17 had mouthline injuries consistent with “fishery interactions,” such as hooks or lines.
Some measures have been put in place, like fishermen using hooks that are strong enough to keep the fish on the line but weak enough to bend and set a false killer whale free.
Baird said the weaker circle hooks should reduce injuries and deaths but he doesn’t believe it will be enough. Their recovery may also require closing certain fishing areas, for instance, to further limit interactions, and reducing the amount of chemical contaminants in the fish they eat, including pesticides.
He also continues to believe in the effectiveness of public education and working together with fishermen, government officials, tour operators and environmental groups.
“You can look at it from a utilitarian perspective. If you want the state to be prosperous and be a desirable place for tourists then you have to maintain a healthy ecosystem,” Baird said. “Or you can look at it from a less utilitarian perspective and more of a quality-of-life issue and supporting the values and environment that we all can be happy about living in.”
The insular population of Hawaii’s false killer whales, which were listed as endangered in 2012, is down to about 150, according to the latest estimates. That’s less than a third as many as were recorded in a study 20 years earlier.
It remains the species of whale or dolphin that is most at risk in Hawaiian waters, Baird said.
While the team’s main mission in this three-week project on Lanai is to learn more about false killer whales in the area, the research they’re conducting goes further.
The team includes Colin Cornforth, contracted to help as photographer and alternate boat captain; Kimberly Wood, a photographer out of Waianae; Elle Walters, Cascadia research assistant; and Daniel Webster, a research associate for Cascadia who has worked with Baird since 2000.
Data is logged about almost everything the team encounters, whether it’s pilot whales and spotted dolphins or red-footed boobies and black-footed albatrosses. The number of commercial tours and fishing boats are recorded, too, with the goal of better understanding how their activities impact species.
No false killer whales were spotted during the nine-hour patrol off of Lanai on March 7, but two days later the team members struck scientific gold.
They found false killer whales from a rarely seen group and were able to take identification photos of at least 20 individuals and deploy three satellite tags to track their movements over the next couple months. They also got to witness them hunting a mahimahi.
Baird said one or two days like that can make a project. He said in this case, they’ll learn about the seasonality of false killer whales — addressing a gap in the data.
Tagging of false killer whales has mostly occurred from June to December, and it has never before been done in this area.
“In terms of the location, these are the first satellite tags deployed on false killer whales in Maui Nui,” Baird said in an email.
Scientists have very little information on what the false killer whales are doing from March through May, so these tags will give them the first detailed information from this season.
“You feel like at the end of your career you want to have accomplished something and what I want to accomplish is doing good science that is used for some important purpose,” Baird said.
Editor’s note: Some marine animals were photographed under a federal permit allowing closer access.