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!