Tagging Whales Tells Researchers ‘The Story Of The Whole Ocean’

In the waters off Maui, scientists are gathering data on whales to learn how each piece fits in a delicate marine ecosystem.

An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaii to breed each year. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655)

From the bow, Marc Lammers stared down into the deep blue water, eyes fixed on the dark mass rising toward the surface.

With each passing second, the humpback whale grew larger, until it was almost the size of the little research boat he was standing on as it hummed along Maui’s western coastline. Lammers, a research coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, could make out the arch of the dorsal fin, the outline of the massive fluke.

The crew had spent all morning looking for a humpback like this — one that was curious or distracted enough to allow the boat to creep within a few feet so Lammers could lean over the railing with a long pole to attach a tagging device to the whale’s skin.

Some of the most important whale research in Hawaii occurs in the waters between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

The tag, roughly the shape of a flattened football with suction cups on one side, acts like a smartwatch, Lammers said. It lets researchers recreate what the whale did underwater through motion sensors, audio recorders and a video camera. It’s the closest humans can come to experiencing a whale’s world.

Scientists like him want to better understand the marine giants so they can learn how to better protect them — and the ocean as a whole. Humpbacks play a key role in keeping the ocean healthy, nurturing each piece of the delicate marine ecosystem and even helping to supply fresh oxygen in the air we breathe.

On this clear January morning, Lammers had already had a half-dozen unsuccessful tagging attempts. But this whale was closer than any of the ones before — and he was ready. Yet just as he thought the whale was about to blow, she veered away from the boat, fading into the depths.

On the recent morning, the tag flew off the pole into the water just as Lammers was about to tag a whale. He typically tags between one and four whales during each trip.
Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

Like anything, learning how to fasten a scientific device to the back of a 45-ton humpback in the open Pacific Ocean was a matter of practice. Lammers started years ago with a buoy. He and the crew would talk each other through a hypothetical scenario, motoring close enough to the “whale,” pretending it was surfacing, and just at the right moment, clap the tag on.

When Lammers first started tagging whales, it was a surge of adrenaline. He was hyper aware of every movement. If the boat lurched forward too abruptly, the engine revved, or he swung his pole forward too early, the whale might spook. If too slow, he’d miss his chance entirely. Only after Lammers got the tag on and the whale swam back underwater would he notice his hands were shaking.

Federal law prohibits approaching whales within 100 yards. NOAA scientists are granted a special exemption for research. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

In the five years since then, Lammers has tagged dozens of whales as the researcher for the sanctuary, an area managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The 1,370-square-mile area is home to one of the world’s most important humpback whale habitats, where an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpbacks travel each year from feeding grounds in northern waters to breed, give birth and nurse their young.

Marc Lammers joined NOAA in late 2017. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

The sanctuary is renowned for its team’s research and efforts to protect humpbacks — in some cases, even saving their lives by untangling them from fishing gear. People come from all over the world to learn how to free the humpbacks, and scientists and students from institutions ranging from the University of Hawaii Hilo to Syracuse University in New York regularly team up to study them with NOAA scientists.

Each whale season, researchers launch about 20 tagging missions, aimed at gaining insight into the whale’s lives and behaviors. But their work is about so much more than just protecting humpbacks.

From Lammers’ perspective, whales serve as ambassadors, reflecting the state of the sea. They teach scientists how human behavior can threaten each fragment of the interconnected ocean environment.

Because whales’ enormous bodies store so much carbon, they can help combat climate change. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

The humpbacks face the consequences of overfishing and climate change, including a warmer and more acidic ocean that threatens vital feeding grounds. During the whales’ 3,000-mile journey to the Hawaiian Islands from Alaska, they navigate the polluted waters of the Pacific Garbage Patch. And once in Hawaii, they deal with heavy vessel traffic, rising ocean noise levels and a barrage of boats shuttling tourists on sunset cruises and snorkel trips.

“We can tell the story of the whole ocean through the eyes of the whale,” Lammers said.

To prevent strikes during whale season, marine vessels in sanctuary waters shouldn’t travel more than 15 nautical miles per hour or more than 6 nautical miles per hour if within 400 yards of a whale. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

The waters outside of Maalaea Bay can be some of the windiest in the islands, but the sea was like a sheet of glass during the tagging trip last month. Everything was calm — even the whales.

So Lammers and the boat captain, Ted Grupenhoff, patiently waited. It’s just one of the many challenges of tagging humpbacks. Another major one? Retrieving the tag.

NOAA scientists use tags that have audio recorders, motion sensors and underwater video cameras. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

Losing a tag is a researcher’s nightmare. There’s the cost — each device is around $14,000. And there’s the data itself — hours of vital information.

The newer tags have GPS, but for a long time scientists had to rely on listening to a radio beacon to locate a tag. You wear a headset, sweep an antenna back and forth across the horizon and listen for beeps.

If the antenna is pointed in the direction of the tag, beeps grow louder. But there are limitations. It doesn’t work if a tag is underwater or picked up by a mariner who decides to stow it in their hull for safekeeping.

One of the first times Lammers tagged a whale — in 2018, shortly after he was hired by NOAA — the device stayed on 37 hours. He thought it was lost, and spent hours driving around Maui, hoping that a higher elevation would give him an unobstructed path to hear beeps.

At his wit’s end, he drove to the highest point on island, the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala. With his headphones on, he waved the antenna around, drawing the attention of onlookers near the summit viewing area. They became even more confused when they asked what he was listening for and Lammers responded, “Whales!”

The radio signal can’t be heard if the tag is under the water. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

But then he heard it. The tag had fallen off in front of Maalaea Boat Harbor, where the research boat is docked. Lammers later learned the tag had slipped under the whale’s body, never reaching the surface to emit a signal.

Other times, tagging in Maui’s coastal waters mean devices left overnight drift out into the channels leading toward the Big Island or Molokai. To retrieve the tag the following day, researchers must brave some of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world.

But on the slow days, the crew wishes there was a little more excitement. By midday on this trip, they’d had a few close misses but still no tags on whales.

From the captain’s nest, Grupenhoff searched for spouts. He knew there were whales all around them. What they needed, he began to say, was a “competition pod” — the term used to describe a group of multiple male whales competing for a single female. Competition pods are one of the easiest targets for tagging because the whales, consumed in the challenge, are often distracted.

A competition pod off of the Olowalu coastline. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

Even though scientists for decades have known that humpbacks come to Hawaiian waters to reproduce, they have never fully observed a whale giving birth — or mating. Researchers have so many questions: Does it happen in the deep water? Does it happen at night? Do multiple male whales mate with a female, or just one? Someday, through the tagging videos, they might discover the answers.

Grupenhoff steered the boat toward Lahaina to try  their luck in that direction. In the distance near the Olowalu coastline, he saw a spout. Then another.

Julia Zeh, another researcher on board, saw them too. She is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse and is working with Lammers this year to tag young whales to understand how they learn to sing. Do they inherently know how, or do they learn over time like human infants who babble?

“That’s a lot of whales!” Zeh called to the captain.

A competition pod travels south toward Makena.
Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

The whales hugged the coastline, diving and spouting, the West Maui Mountains towering behind them. The boat picked up speed, trailing the pod. The crew adjusted their headsets. Lammers readied himself at the top of the bow, the pole resting over his shoulder.

The slow motion dance had begun. Through the headsets, Lammers and Grupenhoff discussed their approach. The boat was crawling between 2 and 6 nautical miles per hour when it glided into the heart of a pod.

Lammers held still with the pole behind him, waiting for his moment. Only after the whale’s nose broke the surface of the water, moments before spouting, did he start extending the pole forward.

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Research conducted under NOAA Permit No. 19655 (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Everything else happened within seconds. Lammers brought the pole down, pressing the suction cups of the device onto the whale’s back as the boat coasted into neutral. With a splash, the whale disappeared under the sea.

Grupenhoff and Lammers both smiled. They had successfully tagged one of the males.

Whale season in Hawaii spans from November to May. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

For the rest of the day, the crew followed the pod, as it traveled miles across the Maui coastline, from Olowalu to Wailea. They counted at least 12 whales in the group, putting tags on three.

It was only a few years ago that NOAA researchers got ahold of tags equipped with video cameras, giving them an entirely new perspective into whales’ lives.

Researchers identify humpback whales by the patterns on their flukes. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

Lammers’ tag videos have captured how humpback whales act as roaming ecosystems, attracting fish like opelu to feed on their dead skin. It has helped scientists understand the whales’ role in keeping the ocean healthy, and what Hawaii and the rest of the globe stands to lose if the humpbacks’ habitat is harmed.

A growing body of research shows that whales themselves play a key role in combating climate change by trapping carbon in their enormous bodies and feeding the phytoplankton that create oxygen. Yet at the same time, whales are incredibly vulnerable to environmental disruption.

Around 2016, a marine heatwave struck the northeast Pacific in the whales’ feeding grounds near Canada, disrupting the ocean’s regular balance and collapsing key feeding grounds. In the years that followed, scientists estimate the number of whales that returned to Hawaii to breed was cut in half — and some of the ones that returned were dangerously thin.

NOAA researchers usually launch 20 tagging missions per whale season. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

The population returning to Hawaii has since gone back up, but scientists are still trying to understand why that happened, whether whales went elsewhere to reproduce or skipped breeding altogether to hunt for food to stay alive.

“That all has this cascading effect on not just humpback whales, but all the animals that that depend on those ecosystems,” Lammers said.

Even though humpbacks are some of the most studied whales in the world, there are still a lot of other outstanding mysteries about them. When do they rest? What do they do in the dark?

Through tag data, researchers have gleaned that whales tend to be more active in the morning and restful in the afternoon, then suddenly at sunset, tags often come off. Finding answers to those questions can inform researchers as they find ways to educate the public and steer best practices in the way humans use the ocean around whales.

NOAA scientists often partner with university researchers and students. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

But Lammers won’t find those answers in a single day. Within a couple hours, all of the tags had fallen off the whales, in time for the crew to recover them just as the sun began to dip behind the West Maui Mountains, casting a warm glow. They motored toward the harbor as the flood of tour boats set sail.

On the way, they came across a mother and calf. The boat slowed to a crawl while the researchers watched the whales slowly bobbing along the water’s surface. For a second, they wondered, is it worth trying to put a last tag out?

“She looks pretty peaceful,” Grupenhoff said. “It’d be a shame to bother her, eh?”

Lammers agreed, and the captain shifted the boat forward. The whales vanished under the surface, but a few seconds later the mother launched herself into the air, white water flying high around her.

From the captain’s nest, Grupenhoff called out: “That’s the Aloha breach!”

A whale breaches in Maui waters. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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