Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy Green Sea Turtle of Hawaii
Great Birthday Deal of Espionage Part II

Continued from the post: Happy Bottlenose Dolphins of Hawaii - Great Birthday Deal of Espionage Part I.

It was getting late, and now it's time to accomplish our mission. Actually I was getting a bit nervous. I knew I wasn't gonna be a good spy as I pretty much suck at lying. Even if this mission was out of good cause, I felt guilty to pretend to be someone that I was not. I thought my wife was handling this situation much better, so I let my wife speak most of the time.

There were some minor happenings throughout the mission, but over all everything went well as we planned. The restaurant had great service and atmosphere at their prime location. We always wanted to check out this famous restaurant, but their price and not-so-good reputation held us back for all these years.

Guess what. We were right. The food there wasn't so good... lobsters tasted like dirt/mud, signature pork chop and fillet mignon were hard and dry, cocktail drinks were too thin, and we saw the tiniest piece of foie gra we have ever seen on the fillet mignon, etc. etc... Over all tastes of every dish were not quite right, in other words, mostly under seasoned. If you consider their outrageous price, you would feel even much worth when paying. Lucky for us, we didn't have to pay for it. It was $250. Oh my..!?

Our mission was accomplished. Despite the bad tasting food and a bit of guilty feelings of being spies, we had great time, having wines & beers, and laughing at the thumbnail size foie gra under romantic Hawaiian torches at the nicest table over looking Pacific Ocean.

Next morning we were notified by our contact that the restaurant stuff didn't do any wrong doing to us. We were honestly disappointed at the outcome but the hotel manager liked us and promised to use us again! So that's all great!

We spent the rest of the day swimming, drinking and shopping. It turned out to be a perfect short vacation to enjoy and to get rejuvenated.

At the end of the day, we decided to stroll the famous beach at Anaehoomalu Bay aka A-Bay. Ever since the Kilauea erupted more actively, the volcanic gas aka vog has been filling the skies of most of the Big Island. Today was one of those typical "voggy" days.

The vog was pretty heavy, but the sunset looked better here than Kona where we live. The vog in Kona and South West Hawaii has been horribly bad and much worth than in Kohala and North West Hawaii.

As we strolled on the beach, we found some green sea turtles, Chelonia mydas, basking at sunset.

All sea turtles are listed as endangered species. The green sea turtle is, of course, one of such species that we need to protect from extinction.

green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, basking on the beach at sunset, Anaehoomalu Bay, Waikoloa, Kohala Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

However, contrary to the worldwide status of this species, Hawaii's green sea turtles are doing very well for some reason. If you've ever been to Hawaii, you know where to find them. They are practically everywhere.

This large adult turtle was still so sleepy that she wasn't bothered by the incoming tidal waves crashing on her butt. With moody, voggy sunset in the background... I was able to capture a peaceful, beautiful moment of this happy turtle's life in Hawaii.

Happy Bottlenose Dolphins of Hawaii
Great Birthday Deal of Espionage Part I

My wife and I were asked to infiltrate and survey one of their signature restaurants at the world-famous XXXXXX Hotel, which might have been ripping off hotel guests, particularly non-English speaking Japanese tourists. If that's true, we agreed to help the internal investigation by pretending a dumb Japanese couple from Japan who didn't speak English at all.

I'm not gonna tell you all about it in detail because it's secret, but I tell you that we had a great deal and the day was actually my birthday as my lovely wife arranged that way, so we could stay in a nice resort for free. Smart woman ;-)

In exchange of being spies, all of our expense were paid including three very expensive resort meals & snacks, internet connections, a nice room, valet parking, plus petty cash for tipping, etc. Whole thing might have cost them little under $1,000. Wow! That's pretty expensive for one night stay for two, right? What a deal!

After we arrived at the hotel, we had a secret briefing with the hotel manager at a Chinese restaurant, and were given some cash to pay for it. The mission was a piece of cake and dim-sum, beer and services were all good so far!

We had some time to kill until the next fatty meal, so we decided to go swimming a bit to investigate their pools as well as to consume extra beer calories. On the way to the pool, we swung by the famous the dolphin pen, where about 10 common bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, were trained spending the day interacting with humans.

The common bottlenose dolphin is the most well-known species of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. Those dolphins are very common among marine parks and aquariums around the world because they are known to do very well in captivity.

common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, jumping with Hula hoop, Hawaii, USA, captive

Unlike scarred up wild common bottlenose dolphins regularly seen around Hawaii, these captive dolphins looked strikingly different. They were so clean and beautiful as they have been meticulously cared in the enclosure by the stuff and some were even born there.

The wild Hawaiian common dolphins are much larger in size, and the color of their bodies are much darker, almost blackish, contrary to the light gray color of those captive dolphins. In addition, wild ones typically have many battle scars and rake marks.

common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, performing, Hawaii, USA, captive

The enclosure was somewhat small but it was much better than most of enclosures I've seen else where. The water was clean and crystal clear all the time with a natural lagoon beach setting.

Dolphins seemed happy there, too. That's very important to me as I believe that all mammals have and develop "feelings" just like us humans. Unlike other creatures like fish and invertebrates, mammals feel joy, happiness, sadness or pain.

As I have a privilege to deal with wild marine mammals such as dolphins & whales almost daily, I learned to sense their mood because I could only take pictures of them when they let me. In the wild, sometimes they are friendly and come closer to play with me, and other times they don't want to see me at all. I just have to meet them at the right time at the right place. Well.. that's not easy!

common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, treading water spyhop, Hawaii, USA, captive

Other than mammals such as sharks, fish and inverts are, to me, easier to take pictures of. Unlike mammals, their behaviors are rational and very much predictable based on their natural mechanism, genes, and not based on their feelings and emotions.

Anyway I can only hope those dolphins in captivities are well taken care of for the rest of their lives as these captive dolphins could never survive in the wild, and contribute to their honorable projects in a very positive way to impact our environment.

To be continued to: Happy Green Sea Turtle of Hawaii - Great Birthday Deal of Espionage Part II.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin Play
The Day Before Halloween Par II

Continued from the previous post: The Beauty Of The Oceanic Whitetip Shark - The Day Before Halloween Part I.

After my buddy and I had great time with the beautiful shark, we moved on toward FAD (Fish Aggregation Device) to catch some fish for dinner. Half way there...we found a few fishing boats getting together further offshore. We immediately sensed that there was a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins, Stenella attenuata, as those fishing boats were going after large yellowfin tunas or ahi in Hawaiian, Thunnus albacares, which frequently traveled with spotted dolphin pod.

First thing I do in this situation is to see if dolphins are playful. Pantropical spotted dolphins usually love to play when they are awake and excited, and like to ride boat wakes. When they are not so much  into wake riding and jumping, or in a sort of sleepy mood, they like to hang out at the bow at 2 knots.

pantropical spotted dolphin baby jumping, Stenella attenuata, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

Their leaps are simply spectacular. Perhaps leaps higher than any other dolphin species except maybe the larger common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, (but bottlenose don't leap very often in the wild). Large adult pantropical spotted dolphins can leap as high as 30 feet or more in the air!

From my observation, most of the time, they seem to rocket out of the water and then land hard on the water in order to get rid of remoras off their bodies. I could understand. The remoras must be annoying. Also I believe they do that just for fun sometime.

Today they were... extra playful! Jumping all over the boat wakes and gave us good opportunities to take some pictures of their acrobatic play. Unfortunately it was already afternoon, so the sun was overhead and vog (volcanic gas) was kicked in making everything fuzzy.

Well...the light wasn't so good but thanks to the dolphins, I managed to produce some cool dolphin pictures. The picture above shows a leaping baby dolphin. It jumped a few times in a row. The baby dolphins typically have pretty pink belly and have almost no spots like this one.

No remoras on her, so the baby must have been jumping for joy.

pantropical spotted dolphin jumping, Stenella attenuata, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

While we played with dolphins, we closely watched other fishing boats to see if anybody is catching humongous ahi. It seemed like they were having tough time catching one today. My buddy and I don't have as much patience as those professional tuna fishermen who can troll all day long among leaping dolphins. Besides the vog got thickened making it harder to make a good clear picture, we left the scenes to continue to the way points of the day for fishing.

The Beauty Of The Oceanic Whitetip Shark
The Day Before Halloween Part I

The weather has been not so great lately as if the season seems changing from the fall to the winter. Yes, folks, Hawaii has sort of four seasons. Today was... well, beautiful as usual. One sunny day with almost no wind and less vog (volcanic gas). Water was choppy due to small swells but I know the day like this makes great pictures.

My buddy and I went out late from Honokohau Harbor at about 10:00 am as we had photo requests to fulfill this morning, but we had a good heads-up report from Doug Perrine the master marine wildlife photographer.

He was out yesterday and said that mahi mahi (common dolphinfish or dorado), Coryphaena hippurus, and ono (wahoo or Pacific kingfish), Acanthocybium solandri, were hanging at a FAD (Fish Aggregation Device), and tuna fishing was also pretty hot, in addition, he had good oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus, encounter. Sounds great, doesn't it?

As we made a beeline for a FAD from Honokohau Harbor, we found a logging pod of short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus, almost exactly where we found a pod of pygmy killer whales, Feresa attenuata, two weeks ago (see this post: Pygmy Killer Whale Families).

Immediately after I slipped into the deep water, I was greeted by an oceanic whitetip shark charging toward me from the depth to investigate me. Many people would get into panic when they see a large shark coming right at them, but I've been through similar situation many times now over the years. and I learned exactly what I had to do in this situation as a photographer.

oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus, threatened spcecies, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

Typically I would have only a shot or two at most. As I expected, the shark came very close, bumped the dome port slightly, and then circled me once and disappeared into the deep. I was able to grab a coupe of decent shot of the shark.

As I hurried back to my boat to get another underwater strobe, I found a much larger 9 foot shark following right behind me. Ok, I admit I hate this situation. Simply freak me out. Smart ones always show up right behind.

Sharks are typically attracted by the gargling and splashing sound that I create by kicking my fins. I also learned that they liked all kinds of squeaking sound that my camera housing and strobe arms created.

In order to produce some decent shark pictures, I need the shark to be within a foot or two. The most difficult task is to keep the shark interested in me.

So I intentionally made more sounds by kicking horrendously pretending a panicking swimmer, and by moving strobe arms to recreate bone-crashing sounds. The big oceanic whitetip shark came right by! (I highly recommend not to do that if you are afraid of sharks. Do exactly the opposite and sharks will go away ;-)

oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus, threatened spcecies, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

The oceanic whitetip sharks are known to attack humans. explains, " This is an active, almost fearless shark also charged in human attacks. Probably responsible for many open-ocean attacks after air or sea disasters." I totally agree.

Sometimes, they are so persistent that they stick around forever until they get what they want. One time I had about 6 oceanic whitetip sharks circled my puny single engine 17-foot CC boat for all day long. I had good shooting, but when the boat engine didn't start for a while, my buddy and I got very much scared. It eventually started and saved us from becoming shark attack victims of sea disasters.

When they get too excited by competing to each other, they'll start biting every metal object that they could find such as the camera housings, strobe arms, engine parts and propellers.

I usually get out of the water when there are more sharks than I can handle by myself. Typically two are fine but more than that... As the sharks usually sneak up behind to attack, I don't think I can watch my back from three or more sharks unless I have some one with me in the water to protect my back with a spear gun or a stick .

Anyway the big shark decided to stick around with us instead of getting going with the pilot whales. Unfortunately the shark had only one pilot fish, Naucrates ductor, but the shark was one of the most beautiful individual shark I have ever seen.

This shark didn't have many scars as typically found in many larger sharks, and the form was stunningly balanced with white-tipped large round dorsal fin, extra long pectoral fins and caudal fins which are characteristic of this offshore shark species and after which this shark species was named as longimanus = long hand in Latin.

As the water surface was glass-calm, the scene of this beautiful shark and its reflection was absolutely splendid and fantastic. Although the visibility wasn't so good, the shark was so so cooperative and I was able to capture some of the most memorable scenes with my camera.

This awesome day continues to: Pantropical Spotted Dolphin Play - The Day Before Halloween Part II.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pygmy Killer Whale Families

Continued from: Giant Deep Water Squid - Blainville's Beaked Whale Leftovers...

My sea sickness actually got worse by dealing with the slimy, stinky giant squid carcass underwater and on the boat later. Beaked whales are long-gone, so we kept moving.

On the way to our next way point, we found a pod of pygmy killer whales, Feresa attenuata. Again they are one of those species that we don't regularly see. With a luck, I see them up north during humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, season, so this would be the first time for me to see them down South.

We were lucky with the finding of the whale, but the weather and the condition of the water was getting bad. Strong wind started blow and clouds was covering the sky in a hurry.

Despite the worsening conditions, I gently slipped into the water. Soon after, I was greeted with a curious scouting whale. The pod was made of about 50 whales, and I saw many mother and calf combinations. It appeared a kindergarten pod. Some calves still had neonatal folds and looked fairly small.

pygmy killer whale, Feresa attenuata, scout with many scars and rake marks, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

Mothers and calves didn't let me get close enough to make a seriously good picture, but they let me swim by their side, so I was able to observe some cute and cuddly activities between mothers and calves.

Baby pygmy killer whales were very playful and even breached a few times right in front of me. After I grabbed some profile shots (that was all I could get). I switched the position with my buddy while they were still playful because she has never swam with them before. Luckily she was also able to swim by them and observe them playing underwater.

two pairs of pygmy killer whale mother and calf, Feresa attenuata, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Oceana

We were able to track them for a while but the ocean condition got worse with gusty wind and dark clouds, and eventually the whales disappeared among dark choppy waves.

Giant Deep Water Squid - Blainville's Beaked Whale Leftovers

Weather was fine today but the ocean was fairly choppy. Ten minutes after my buddy and I left the Honokohau harbor, I started feeling my head spinning... I was dizzy. It was a sure sign of seasickness. Believe it or not, I am very much prone to seasickness. I know, that doesn't go with my profession.

Anyway while I was getting dizzy, my buddy pointed at something ahead. As we got close, we learned they were Blainville's beaked whales or dense-beaked whales, Mesoplodon densirostris. They are around the Big Island but it's very hard to find them. You just have to be lucky to see them.

In addition, they are usually very shy, so it makes this whale species one of the most difficult animals to photograph. I have some OK pictures of this species but I would like something much better.

It seemed that they were playing with something or feeding on something at the surface, so I thought I could have a chance to sneak up on them while they were occupied with that. We approached them very cautiously, stopped the boat far from them and I gently swam out toward them with my camera. But as soon as I reached half way, maybe about 200 feet, to them, they dove and disappeared.

As I continued to swim toward them, I found some carcass of large squid - estimated diameter of about 8 inches and 4-5 feet in length. We knew a famous cetacean scientist/researcher, Robin Bird PhD, who has been studying beaked whales around Hawaii, so we put it in a bag and iced it.

large carcass of a deep water squid, Histioteuthis cerasina, not known to migrate vertically, probably left on the surface by Blainville's beaked whales or dense-beaked whales, Mesoplodon densirostris, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

It was a fresh kill but it was slimy and stinky... yikes! It looked like a humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, size-wise, but I don't think the squid species lives here. It's definitely a type of deep water squid and we are hoping it's possibly a juvenile giant squid, Architeuthis sp. That would be a great discovery.

Later on, Robin came back to us and told us that the squid is perhaps a type of rare deep-water squid, Histioteuthis cerasina. There is no common name of the species, and most of them don't migrate vertically. He also said this was the first specimen of that species collected off Hawaii.

We were glad to know all these information as well as the fact that our effort to preserve that stinky, slimy thing wasn't in vain and actually contributed to the science!

To be continued to: Pygmy Killer Whale Families...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Spotted Eagle Ray - The most beautiful thing I've ever seen!

To be continued from: False Killer Whales in Danger of Extinction?

While continuing to follow false killer whales, Pseudorca cassidens, we found a pair of spotted eagle rays, Aetobatus narinari, swimming at surface. It was very odd to find them a mile offshore around 3,000 feet deep water as they were usually found near shore where you can see some bottoms of the ocean.

We were a bit bored of following whales without seeing many actions for a few hours, so we started investigating the eagle rays, and soon learned that there was something wrong with them. They seemed struggling to swim.

spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

Normally they are very difficult to approach in the wild. Very shy and usually stay away or simply flee from divers or others when they are approached. However, at this time, they behaved quite differently. It was after 3:00 pm and just about getting into the golden hour. It was already dark underwater as the light rays started hitting everything sideways. At this time of the year, I could probably shoot without artificial light underwater until 4:30 pm.

spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari, showing long whip-like tail, venomous, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

As soon as I saw them underwater, I understood why they looked struggling. There were two eagle rays swimming together, but one of them had a huge belly and seemed having difficulty just swimming right.

I soon realized that the large one with pot-belly was female and was pregnant. She was accompanied by a smaller male eagle ray with large claspers - a pair of male organs. Two were swimming near the surface together, and sometimes breaking the surface with their tips of fins.

Like any woman in labor, she looked like she was in a lot of pain and her mate was looking after her helplessly. I thought I might have a chance to photograph the "live-birth" of the spotted eagle ray, so I tried to hang out with them without disturbing.

spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari, Kona Coast, venomous, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

I've heard that during the birthing process, eagel rays have been seen leaping out of the water and dripping their offsprings in midair! (find more info at John Hoover's That would be an awesome thing to see if that happened, regardless I get a shot or not.

They seemed careless about my presence underwater, or they seemed just too busy with what they were supposed to do. I was successfully able to follow them for about an hour or so while keeping the distance, and then, suddenly they disappeared into deep, dark water as the sun was setting on the horizon.

spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari, showing long whip-like tail, venomous, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

What a beautiful creatures they were! The whitespots were beautifully laid out on the top of their redish brown color that was lit by golden sunlight... Gliding ever-gracefully through the dark blue water with super long whip-like tails gently trailing its spotted, diamond-shaped body. It was one of the most spectacular and the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life.

False Killer Whales In Danger Of Extinction?

On this day, we had some report on sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, sightings, so decided to go out far offshore to look for them. We cruised around all morning, and found some short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus, but sperm whales were no where to be found. Just about we were getting inshore. We learned from our source that there were a small pod of false killer whales, Pseudorca cassidens, just off the Red Hill.

The false killer whale is a type of tropical dolphins. They are relatively large in size, growing up to 20 feet (6 m) in length and weighing up to 2.2 tons. They look similar to short-finned pilot whales, but can be easily distinguished by their smaller melon heads and more dolphin-like, slender dorsal fins. Their body colors seem also lighter than pilot whales, at least here in Hawaii, particularly young ones are.

false killer whale, Pseudorca cassidens, juvenile, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

As their name indicates, they are known to attack other mammals like smaller dolphins. Using their large bodies, they've been seen attacking a humpback whale baby, Megaptera novaeangliae, as well. This is one of the species I get nervous with when photographing underwater as they are big and toothy. I've seen them relentlessly attacking their prey (see this post: False Killer Whales Gang Hunting Lone Yellowfin Tuna). They can eat me alive easily if they really want to.

They live in tropical and subtropical waters around the world, but recently the Hawaii's population is severely declined. It is very shocking to learn the dramatic decline of the number of sightings in recent years.

false killer whales, Pseudorca cassidens, adult male with many scars, mother with fish (a jack) in her mouth and calf in background, Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean

Renowned cetacean scientist, Robin W. Baird PhD, presented a very sad facts on False Killer Whales in Hawaii at Cascadia Research Collective site, completed with a National Geographic Crittercam video footage and some nice pictures from my fellow photographer, Deron Verbeck, and local researcher and whale watch specialist, Dan McSweeney.

I've been contributing to his whale research around Kona by supplying photos and information of sightings as much as I can over the years, but in recent years, Robin elevated the urgency level on false killer whale research as he and other researchers learned or "felt" the severe decline in their population around Hawaii. He deployed a satellite tracking device on a whale and started getting very interesting information about their migratory patterns and frequencies of their visits to some areas.

After I read the article, I recalled that I used to hear a lot more about the false killer whale sightings in town. I've seen them several occasions for over a decade, but was only able to photograph them twice so far.

Apparently the commercial fishing like the notorious longline fishing is something to do with them as this method of fishing is known to kill many dolphins and sharks unnecessarily as bycatch, but no one concluded the definite cause to explain the sharp decline.

To be continued to: Spotted Eagle Ray - The Most Beautiful Thing I've Ever Seen!