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...