The HICEAS adventures continue: Two ships join forces to search for whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters

By Amanda Bradford and Jeff Moore
HICEAS Cruise Leaders

When we last checked in on the progress of the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS), the first leg of HICEAS 2017 aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette had been completed.  A lot has happened since then!  To begin with, the Sette finished its second leg while the NOAA ship Reuben Lasker joined the survey and accomplished its first HICEAS leg.  The Lasker traveled to the Hawaiian Islands study area from its home port in San Diego, CA, a journey that took almost 9 days and spanned approximately 2,000 nautical miles.  Here, we fill you in on our respective trips as HICEAS Cruise Leaders, Amanda on the Sette and Jeff on the Lasker.

Sette’s Second Sail

After a brief in-port following the first leg, the Sette set sail again on August 8 for a 29-day journey that ended on September 5.  Sette Leg 2 focused on the northern portion of the study area, from above the main Hawaiian Islands in the east to the far northwestern reaches above Midway and past the International Dateline.  We were pretty lucky with weather during this leg, with a majority of our 2,315 nautical miles of daytime visual effort occurring in Beaufort sea state conditions of 4 or less, which is atypical thanks to our persistent trade winds.  With the improved sea conditions, we were better able to visually detect groups of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which is reflected in a relatively high number of cetacean sightings – 70 groups in total.  Nevertheless, we had several days with great weather when we did not see or hear any cetaceans.  On these days, we were far from land and in-between the seamounts that dot the region.  We were reminded that parts of our study area are often referred to as a “tropical desert” because the nutrient-poor waters make it difficult to support high densities of cetaceans.

Lucky 13! That is, the 13 scientists who worked tirelessly to collect data on cetaceans and seabirds during Sette’s Leg 2 of HICEAS 2017. From left to right: Rory Driskell, Ali Bayless, Erik Norris, Adam Ü, Chris Hoefer, Amanda Bradford, Joe Fader, Allan Ligon, Amy Van Cise, Jennifer Keating, Dawn Breese, Andrea Bendlin, and Paula Olson. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hung “Doc” Tran

The 70 sightings made by the cetacean observers included at least 13 species, ranging from the small spinner dolphin to the large Bryde’s whale.  The most frequently sighted species was the striped dolphin, seen a whopping 14 times, followed by the short-finned pilot whale, which was seen 10 times.  Most other species were seen only 1-2 times.  Our most exciting sightings were of beaked whales, which are elusive and difficult to detect.  First, we had 2 sightings of Longman’s beaked whales, including a group with almost 100 animals, a rare and poorly-known species.  Then, we had a small group of Blainville’s beaked whales approach the ship very closely multiple times during an extended period at the surface, seemingly as curious about us as we were about them.  We took almost 10,000 photos during these cetacean sightings, from both the ship and 7 launches of the small boat.  We collected 33 biopsy samples (small tissue plugs used for genetic and other analyses) from 4 species (spotted, rough-toothed, and bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales) and deployed satellite tags on 3 short-finned pilot whales to study the movements of these individuals.

Daytime survey effort (white lines) and cetacean sightings (see legend) made within the Hawaiian EEZ (blue line) during HICEAS 2017 Leg 2 aboard the Oscar Elton Sette. The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands, and the area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with slightly darker shading showing where the Monument was expanded in 2016.

The acoustics team was also busy, detecting 127 vocal groups of cetaceans.  They also kept our Drifting Autonomous Spar Buoy Recorder, aka DASBR, project going.  During Sette Leg 2, we released 7 DASBRs to listen for vocalizing cetaceans in our absence and picked up 3 others from Leg 1 that were full of data!  We also deployed 43 sonobuoys that allow us to detect vocalizing baleen whales that may be in the area.  The seabird observers recorded thousands of bird sightings from at least 35 species, with the Herald/Henderson’s Petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Parasitic Jaeger, and Pacific Golden Plover all new species for HICEAS 2017.  The Pacific Golden Plovers were returning to their wintering grounds in Hawai’i after spending a summer in Alaska.  Named Kōlea in Hawaiian, these shorebirds are known to return to the exact same location year after year, even the same yard!  Although seabirds tell us a lot about ocean productivity in our study area, we also conducted 35 CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) casts to learn more about the physical properties of the waters we surveyed.  Finally, while we rarely saw the species we were targeting for health assessment using an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS aka drone) when the winds were light, we were able to make 6 hexacopter flights over short-finned pilot whales.

Lasker’s Leading Leg

The Lasker left San Diego on August 17 bound for the HICEAS study area.  To get there as quickly as possible, the cetacean observers worked in what we call ‘passing mode,’ when the ship does not leave the trackline to investigate sightings.  As the days passed, we could tell we were approaching the tropics as air and water temperatures got higher, sightings of tropical seabirds increased, and the trade winds made their presence known.  We arrived in the study area in the pre-dawn hours of August 26, conducting our effort from that day forward in ‘closing mode,’ when the ship “closes” on a sighting to have better looks and more time to obtain species identification, group size estimates, and other information.  Our effort focused on the area south and east of the main Hawaiian Islands, where we surveyed until September 5, ending our 20-day leg.  All told, we completed 1,844 nautical miles of daytime visual effort, with 696 nautical miles in Hawaiian waters.  We sighted 53 cetacean groups – 34 of them were in the HICEAS study area.

Fabulous 14! The ace scientific complement during Lasker’s Leg 1 of HICEAS 2017 (sending birthday greetings to two members of Team Sette). From left to right: Mark Cotter, Heather Colley, Andy Bankert, Jenny Trickey, Jim Gilpatrick, Shannon Coates, Jeff Moore, Suzanne Yin, Seth Sykora-Bodie, Megan Slack, Juan Carlos Salinas Vargas, Marie Hill, Bernardo Alps, and Mike Force. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/PJ Klavon

The 34 sightings of cetaceans in the study area were from 10 identified species – all species seen during Sette Leg 2, with the exception of the pygmy killer whale.  We collected 2 biopsy samples, one from a spotted dolphin and another from a rough-toothed dolphin.  Like the Sette, we saw Longman’s beaked whales (although 3 times!), which was a highlight for us also.  However, our other exciting cetacean detections occurred acoustically.  One night, at about 10 pm, a few of us were gathered in the acoustics lab.  The hydrophone array was still in the water recording, but no one was actively monitoring it, as is usually the case once the sun sets and the observers go off effort.  At just the right moment, faint calls appeared on the computer monitor, and we decided to put the headphones on to listen. Good thing, because killer whales were in the area and gave us quite a performance.  We were treated to a vocal repertoire that sounded somewhat Shamu-like and lasted for over an hour.  If only there had been light left outside to see the animals because it would have been a spectacular encounter.

Daytime survey effort (white lines) and cetacean sightings (see legend) made during HICEAS 2017 Leg 1 aboard the Reuben Lasker, including its transit to the Hawaiian EEZ (blue line). The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands, and the area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The most memorable moment of Lasker Leg 1 took place when the acoustic team began detecting the Cross Seamount beaked whale an hour before dusk.  This beaked whale, first heard at Cross Seamount, is known only from acoustic recordings and sounds unlike any known beaked whale species with acoustic recordings.  With the long, upswept vocalization clicks, there was no doubt that we had found this mystery beaked whale.  We acoustically tracked the animal(s) for over an hour hoping to at long last visually identify the species making these clicks.  As the sun went down, we were losing hope.  Darkness set in, but right before it did, our amazing Lead Cetacean Observer, Suzanne Yin, caught a glimpse of a cetacean that might have been our unknown whale.  Unable to get a good look and confirm the species, we at least got one step closer to identifying the mysterious Cross Seamount beaked whale!  Overall for acoustics, there were 106 detections of cetacean groups during Lasker Leg 1, and we picked up 2 DASBRs.  Finally, the seabird observers encountered 4,916 birds (of at least 15 species) in 28 feeding flocks and recorded 1,830 birds (of at least 42 species) during their strip-transect survey effort.

The Sette Leg 2 and Lasker Leg 1 teams appreciated the help of their visiting scientists, Duke University graduate students Joe Fader (Sette) and Seth Sykora-Bodie (Lasker), who wrote a great blog post about their experiences.  The Sette and Lasker went back to sea for their respective third and second legs on September 11.  Keep checking the HICEAS website for more information on what happened next!

All photos taken under research permit.

Hawaii’s bottomfish fishermen catch their fish, and eat it too!


by Kirsten Leong

In the recent blog Onaga dai Bonkei!, we shared one of the artistic and culturally significant preparations of bottomfish that we heard during interviews for the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage project. We’re collaborating with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group to document the history of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i by listening to stories from veteran fishers. The Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council has also been a key partner and is helping us transcribe the interviews conducted over the past year. So far, 31 of 46 interviews have been transcribed, resulting in over 1200 pages of stories! To celebrate National Seafood Month, we searched the transcripts for favorite dishes and preparations from some of the most skilled bottomfish fishers in the state.

Onaga (long-tail red snapper) topped the list as the fish most people identified as their favorite. While it can be cooked many ways, it was most often described as one of the best species to be eaten raw, as sashimi and poke. Some mentioned that the smaller fish, 12 pounds or less, were better for sashimi. And of course it has to be fresh—ideally fewer than three days old! Local monchong were also mentioned as a good fish for sashimi, as it’s clean and not fishy, although many other species were mentioned as well.

The next most popular favorite was gindai (oblique-banded snapper), followed closely by hogo (scorpionfish). These species aren’t usually targeted, so they aren’t common in the market. They are typically enjoyed steamed, Chinese style. One interviewee even had a special pan for steaming fish for parties. Another explained:

…it’s steamed, red hot oil, soy sauce, ginger; steamed in ginger and onion, fresh ginger and onion, spices, cilantro on top.  It’s just silky smooth. It’s beautiful. It’s a fatty fish. It’s a real nice rich fish to eat, and steaming, of course, is the way to do that kind of fish.

Other variations included oyster sauce, garlic, or chung choi (salted turnip), but all were finished by pouring sizzling hot oil over the fish.


Edwin Ebisui Jr. prepares bottomfishing bait, with a hogo in the foreground (Photo courtesy of Kurt Kawamoto).

Of course, many said that all of the “Deep 7” bottomfishes were delicious and versatile. Other preparations included dry rubbing, slicing, and deep frying with a sauce on the side (to keep the fish crispy); oven-baking with black bean paste, oil, cilantro, and oyster sauce; Japanese nabe soup; and even just frying with salt and pepper. In fact, more interviewees mentioned variations of fried preparations than any other style of cooking. However, they also noted:

People would say, oh, that’s a sin. If you can’t catch it [yourself], then it might be sinful for you to fry it. If you can [catch] it then that’s one thing. But if you can’t catch it, you better not fry it. You better steam it or eat it with some kind of sauce, or something.


Kurt Kawamoto, NOAA Fish Biologist and key project partner who has fished for bottomfish in Hawaii for 40+ years.

In this interview segment, Kurt Kawamoto, NOAA Fish Biologist and key project partner who has fished for bottomfish in Hawaii for 40+ years, describes the first time he tasted his now favorite, hogo.

Others said that their favorite fish depended on what they felt like eating at the moment:

That’s a hard question because every fish has different texture, different taste and all of them are good.


It depends on how you want — or what you feel like — how it’s prepared also.  Sometimes, I’m really ono for steamed fish, then, okay, look for this. Or if you want miso fish, then hogo is really good. I like hapu‘upu‘u. Monchong [pomfret], I really like, too. But the local bottomfish monchong [not] the longline monchong…you can eat it so many different ways!


Nash Kobayashi and Ralph Takafuji talk about their favorite types of fish and different ways to prepare it.

A few interviewees said they didn’t eat much fish, or started to eat fish later in life. In this audio clip, Ralph Takafuji talks with Nash Kobayashi about how he learned to eat fish. Takafuji started fishing in ‘74, and Kobayashi started bottomfishing in ‘85.



We learned a lot about different ways to prepare bottomfish. This part of the interview made us all hungry!

This project was supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.

For more information about this research feel free to contact us:

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts:

Voices from the Hawai‘i Island bottomfishery
Hawaii Bottomfish Heritage Project Underway
Kaua‘i bottomfishers face rougher ocean conditions
Onaga dai Bonkei!

Transcript of Kurt Kawamoto audio clip:
Moffitt:  On the bottomfish, what is your favorite one to eat?
Kawamoto:  Probably the hogo.
And the first time I ever ate that was on the FERESA with Ed Shallenberger because on that boat what we were doing, because he didn’t have a lot of hold space, what he would do is every night after we were done fishing, we would have to clean all those fish, gill and gut all those fish and we’d hang it in the freezer.  Then after it was frozen the next day, we’d stack them all up like cordwood in the other part of the fish hold.
So while we were doing that, there’s nobody cooking.  So eventually, after being the guy who ties all the rigs, ties all the hooks, I became the cook and the observer, who got down all the information, measured every fish, everything.  So I would be cooking because we were getting tired of eating whatever we had.
To them the important fish to save was like the opakapaka, and all of that stuff.  So what’s left over is like the hogo, and stuff.  So I’d cut off the hogo and I’d dice it all up and give it a quick shake in Bisquick and fry it.  And, boy, that was good.  The texture is really nice and it reminded me of lobster.  
Transcript of Nash Kobayashi and Ralph Takafuji audio clip:
Takafuji: Like Gindai. Gindai never went to the market. No matter how much we had, it all went home.
Moffitt: That’s one of questions. What is your favorite species to eat? Sounds like maybe Gindai?
Takafuji: Well no actually, I didn’t start eating fish until…oh, when was it? ’91? No, no, not ’91. ’99, 2000…Yeah about’99 or 2000, somewhere around there. Before that I never ate fish really.
Kobayashi: He started eating fish right, his house, we were looking at him like…Ralph is eating fish??
Takafuji: Um, yeah when I was growing up I didn’t eat fish.
Moffitt: Why did you start in ’99?
Takafuji: I got married and I moved to Saipan for a little while because my wife wanted to go home to give birth. So I was fishing in Saipan. And the most hilarious thing, I come home from fishing, I wanted to get fish for eat. I was so tired, I was so lazy, I never like cook, I just ate the fish. So I started eating fish finally.
Moffitt: Did you like it?
Takafuji: Well, when I was in Saipan, we mostly targeted onaga. We’d average like 600-700 pounds a day. And onaga, blackjacks, um, and lehi, they were the three that we mostly caught. So basically that’s what my kids grew up eating, when it came to fish.
Moffitt: How did you prepare it?
Takafuji: Um, me? I like raw. Onaga, I don’t know, I don’t see what’s so great about it. It’s actually kind of a junk fish if you ask me.
Kobayashi: I agree on that.
Takafuji: We’d catch Hapu‘upu‘u’s, hapu‘upu‘u’s ch fish was always raw.
Moffitt: Hapu‘upu‘u’s raw or you cook that one?
Takafuji: You can eat them raw or actually the way Nash first time seen me eat fish was kinda like, I’m unusual okay, my mom would cut blocks out of it and she’d blanch it just so the outside edge would be cooked and I’d eat it with miso.
Moffitt: What is your favorite of the species?
Kobayashi: My all-time favorite is hapu‘upu‘u.
Moffitt: How do you like to cook hapu‘upu‘u?
Kobayashi: I like mine steamed with black beans. A great-eating fish.
Moffitt: Yeah I agree, I like that one too.
Kobayashi: Then there’s a…remember that aholehole moi that used to come up once in a while?
Takafuji: Aww, I don’t know what they actually call them, but yeah I know which one you’re talking about.
Kobayashi: Beardfish I think they call it? Some people tell it’s terrible but it tastes pretty good when you steam it with miso. But it’s a rare fish to catch. Beardfish.
Takafuji: What did we used to call them? Deep-sea moi.
Kobayashi: It looks like a moi with big eyes, blackish color. But it’s a great eating fish.

Onaga dai Bonkei!


During 2017, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center partnered with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group to conduct an oral history of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i. The purpose of the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage project was to document the rich culture and traditions of this fishery. Earlier this year, we talked about the project on Mike Buck’s radio show, and wrote about what it means to be a bottomfisher on Hawai‘i Island and on Kaua‘i Island.

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake (Kazu) from Tokurri Tei Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Honolulu presents an onaga “bonkei” (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group).

The following story traces the cultural importance and preparation of one of Hawai‘i’s prized “Deep 7” bottomfish, onaga (Etelis coruscans). The story was provided by Pacific Islands Fisheries Group, modified from a story first printed in their Lawai‘a Magazine.

Due to its delicate flavor, onaga is often prepared raw as sashimi. Some of Hawai‘i’s best chefs are able to create a sashimi dinner with the beautiful red fish that is a truly a work of art.

Hawai‘i’s celebrated deep water bottomfish, such as onaga and opakapaka, is rooted in tradition and culture that has evolved to become part of makes Hawai‘i special. In the late 1880s, early “Isseior first generation immigrants from Japan and Okinawa brought with them traditions and practices reflective of the time and place from which they came. One such tradition is the decorative onaga sashimi display that is often the centerpiece of special celebrations such as weddings and special birthdays.

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake (Kazu) from Tokurri Tei Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Honolulu prepares this special dish for weddings and other events. Chef Kazu clarifies that this tradition is really a Hawai‘i thing that you probably won’t find today in Japan. “It’s a remnant of the Onaga quote 1past and something that evolved based on the local resources available at the time,” Kazu explains. During the sugarcane and pineapple plantation days, everyone was struggling to make a living and celebrations were rare and likely structured around the idea of today’s potluck. People would bring food dishes from products they had available at the time. Deep sea fish, such as bottomfish and tuna, were particularly prized and difficult to get. Serving onaga or red snapper sashimi was considered a very special delicacy for any celebration back then and carries on today.

Onaga bonkei

Artistic “bonkei” with onaga bottomfish created by Master Chef Mitake (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group).

Onaga is bright red with nice firm white meat. Its sleek body with large bright eyes and long whisking tail also said to represent longevity. The elegant display of onaga sashimi is skillfully arranged back within the filleted onaga, then adorned with specially-carved daikon (turnip), carrots, cucumbers, and other vegetables. This presentation is known as “bonkei,” a display made of food depicting decorative scenery. There are many types of bonkei. The fish display is one example of this type of food art. Kazu explained that the first part of the word “bon” literally means tray with the second part “kei” meaning scenery.

When it all comes together, the final product is an elegant onaga sashimi scenery embodying the traditional celebratory elements of good luck and longevity – the Hawai‘i way.

Listen to an interview clip with Edwin Ebisui Jr., Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council Chair, and his son Ed Ebisui III, who is learning the “bonkei” technique: 

This project was supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.

For more information about this research feel free to contact us:

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

HICEAS Hilite: Close encounters of the rare kind, the Longman’s beaked whale aka Indopacetus

By Suzanne Yin and Andrea Bendlin
HICEAS Lead Cetacean Observers

Disclaimer: Biologists, like other groups of people, have a lingo that we use in our daily work.  Just like “a slice to go” means a piece of pizza to take away to eat, and a “pick-6” is an interception and touchdown in football, biologists use terms meant to make our communication as clear and efficient as possible.  All animals have a scientific name in Latin and a common name, whether it is Homo sapiens (human), Phoebastria nigripes (Black-footed Albatross), or Gorilla gorilla (no explanation necessary).  Common names can sometimes be confusing.  For instance, the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis) are indeed common in some locations.  But Delphinus are not so common in other parts of the world (they’re not even found in Hawaiian waters), where another species of dolphin may be the ‘common’ dolphin.  In Hawaii, the most commonly seen dolphin is the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris).  Additionally, we are an international community of scientists, and a common name in English may not directly translate in another language.  Thus, we often use scientific names, even in our casual everyday conversation, so that we can speak about animals using a shared language.

Indopacetus?!  That was my question to the other Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) observers after I raced up to the flying bridge of the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker.  The visual team had called on the VHF radio, informing the acoustics team and everyone who had a radio that they had a sighting.  I wasn’t on watch, but I climbed the 31 stairs from my room up to the flying bridge to find out more.  They described what they had seen through the 25-powered binoculars that we call “big eyes”—quite a few animals, all together, puffy blows, light in color, big size even though they were still distant.  And so I said it again, “Indopacetus?!”  A fellow observer nodded his head and said, “I think so.”  And I smiled.  You could feel a frisson of excitement from everyone on the flying bridge.  Most of the scientific party on the Lasker had not seen this species before.  This was going to be good!

The setting sun highlights the puffy blows characteristic of Indopacetus. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

Indopacetus pacificus, or the Longman’s beaked whale, is one of the most rarely seen species of beaked whale.  In fact, we have seasoned colleagues who have sailed in tropical waters for years and have never seen them.  If you ask a cetacean observer working in Hawaii what species is at the top of their “to see” list, for most, it’s Indopacetus.  For those of us who have seen them, you can feel the sense of awe (and envy?!) when someone asks, “You’ve seen Indopacetus?”

Until about 20 years ago, we only really knew about these toothed whales from two skulls, one from Somalia and one from Australia.  They were a mystery species, which is surprising because they aren’t small in size or particularly cryptic once you find them (which of course isn’t easy)!  For years, scientists had reported sightings of a tropical bottlenose whale (a toothed whale with a bulbous melon, which is sort of like having a big forehead).  But, it wasn’t until 2003 when scientist Merel Dalebout and colleagues, using genetic samples from stranded animals, determined that the tropical bottlenose whale and Indopacetus were the same animal.

The face of an Indopactus, a rare and exciting sight! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paula Olson

Indopacetus can be found in large groups, from a handful to upwards of 100 individuals.  They are large in size (up to 20 feet) and have a visible blow.  They can be tan to light brown in color and have a very distinct rostrum (beak).  They can often be found associating with short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and several species of smaller dolphin.  In one of our recent HICEAS sightings, they were mixed with a large group of short-finned pilot whales.  From stranding and sighting data, we do know that they seem to have a vast distribution, inhabiting tropical waters in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Yet, we know next to nothing about their diet, diving capabilities, or reproductive behavior.  Are they more active during the day or night?   Or are they a crepuscular species that is more active at twilight?

This Indopacetus surfaces quickly and moves through the water even faster, giving us few chances to uncover their secrets. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

So far during HICEAS, both the Lasker and the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette have each had a few sightings and acoustic detections of Indopacetus in various parts of the study area, with some of the sightings and detections over a thousand nautical miles away from each other.  During the last HICEAS in 2010, there were only three Indopacetus sightings, but one of them involved a large group of approximately 100 animals in the northwestern reaches of the study areaWe were all hoping we might have a sighting like that again this year, and sure enough, we sighted from the Sette a similar-sized group of animals just 150 nautical miles from where they were seen in 2010.  Was it the same group?  Unfortunately, we were unable to collect genetic samples in 2010 or 2017, so we may never know.  Have we found an Indopacetus hot spot?  Perhaps.  Only further research will tell.  We can only hope the remainder of HICEAS will bring more sightings.  There is one thing we do know for sure–for those of us lucky enough to have an Indopacetus sighting as part of our HICEAS 2017 experience, it is something we will always remember!

This map of the Hawaiian Islands shows all of the HICEAS survey effort (white lines) through September 5, 2017, with Indopacetus sightings shown as orange squares. The area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with slightly lighter shading showing where the Monument was expanded in 2016.

What else will the remainder of HICEAS bring?  Find out on the HICEAS website!

All photos taken under research permit.

From graduate studies in Beaufort, North Carolina, to measuring seas in Hawaii with the Beaufort scale

By Joe Fader and Seth Sykora-Bodie
HICEAS Visiting Scientists

 Joe and Seth are 3rd-year PhD students at Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, and each participated on a leg of HICEAS 2017 as visiting scientists.

Entering the third year of a PhD is an exciting and anxious time. The first two years focus on exploring our fields of research and developing a foundation for a dissertation, which requires reading countless papers, taking (too) many classes, and generally just thinking a whole lot about what we want to do with our lives/careers. In the third year, it is finally time to wrangle data, conduct analyses, and eventually spend every waking moment writing a dissertation! Needless to say, we were thrilled to escape the office to join the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS): Joe on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette’s 2nd leg from August 8 to September 5, and Seth on the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker’s 1st leg from August 17 to September 5.


It wasn’t just the welcome respite from coursework and paper reading that drew us to participate in the Pacific Islands and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers’ cetacean population and ecosystem assessment survey. It was also an incredible opportunity to meet and interact with NOAA scientists, learn techniques for studying marine mammal populations in the wild, and better understand the unique challenges to studying cryptic, migratory, and sometimes seemingly invisible marine mammals. In addition, we each had our own reasons this experience would enrich and complement our particular dissertations.

Joe Fader

My dissertation focuses on depredation, an interaction between odontocete cetaceans (toothed whales, including dolphins) and commercial fisheries in which some odontocete species remove fish from commercial fishing lines before the fishermen are able to bring the catch aboard. It’s pretty clever and an easy meal for the whale. Unfortunately, the animals can get themselves hooked or entangled and of course cause problems for the fishermen that pull up empty lines. False killer whales are the main depredators in the Hawaii-based longline fishery for tuna and are a focus of my PhD studies. They are also a top-priority species for the HICEAS expedition, making it a perfect opportunity to see these animals in nature and develop a richer understanding of their behavior as it might relate to fisheries management. It was also a great opportunity to understand the science that goes on behind the assessment of a human-impacted cetacean population.

Our leg was 29 days all told–not a short period of time and surely one with ample opportunity for many enriching sightings of my coveted false killer whales. Indeed, it was a fantastically exciting leg. Our transect lines were mostly north of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands through some areas that are not expected to have very high densities of cetaceans, or even good conditions for sighting in the first place. Yet, we had amazing encounters with a variety of species. Many of these species were new to me, such as the sperm whale and two incredible sightings of the rare Longman’s beaked whale. We also had quite a few interactions with my other focal species, the short-finned pilot whale. All incredible and memorable, but where were my false killer whales??


As the days ticked by, I started to worry. The other scientists and I had talked about seeing false killer whales so many times on the flying bridge of the Sette that we probably jinxed ourselves. Perhaps the more you hope to see a cetacean species, the more Poseidon will conspire against you to hide them? I grudgingly resigned to my fate, reminding myself these were wild animals, and there are no guarantees in the field. Indeed, that’s part of the excitement of studying these cryptic creatures.

We spent the last day on one final transect line southwest of the island of Oahu. The next morning would be an early arrival to port in Honolulu. With only a few hours of daylight left, I was reflective of this amazing experience, sure that nothing major would happen on this last quiet afternoon. I certainly didn’t expect that, with literally hours of observation left to spare, Cruise Leader Amanda Bradford would calmly bring me over to the acoustics station to inform me that we were entering “Phase 2” of the false killer whale protocol, in which we visually search for false killer whales that were acoustically detected. It was really happening, we had finally had them!

Finally, on the last full survey day of the month-long trip, Joe gets to see false killer whales! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

The next few hours were spent truly learning the ways of the false killer whale. That is, in perfect conditions, with acoustic detections of them all around the vessel, we spotted just a couple of individuals and for only a brief period of time. I loved every second! Our experience shed light on why, with depredation being a fairly common occurrence in Hawaii fisheries, the fishermen themselves very rarely see the animals responsible. This is exactly why many species of cetaceans are so poorly understood and efforts such as HICEAS are vital to improving our understanding of them. As someone interested in working at the intersection of cetacean ecology and human impacts on protected species, I had an eye-opening experience and incredible privilege. Thanks to all the Sette scientists and crew who made it so memorable!

Joe (second from left) assists with Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

Seth Sykora-Bodie

My doctoral research is focused less directly on marine mammals and more broadly on using various ecosystem management techniques to conserve, protect, and recover threatened and endangered species such as whales and dolphins. As biodiversity conservation has become a key issue on the global agenda, scientists and managers alike have focused on improving methods for reducing human impacts to marine ecosystems—one of which is through the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) such as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM). MPAs such as PMNM can offer protection to vulnerable wildlife from fisheries interactions, pollutant accumulation, and other human impacts. Understanding how to design MPAs or other management actions requires understanding the population status and trends of the focal species, emphasizing the importance of surveys like HICEAS that focus on population assessment.

The Lasker steams west from San Diego to join the search for whales and dolphins around Hawaii. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Seth Sykora-Bodie

Past efforts to design and manage MPAs have in many cases resulted in limited benefits to wildlife and ecosystems, while reducing economic opportunity for fishing communities and others; addressing these dual challenges is the goal of my research. To do so, I am situating my work at the intersection of conservation biology, spatial ecology, and environmental politics because environmental stewardship requires an intimate understanding of both natural and social system dynamics. As a result, I spend days in meetings negotiating the boundaries of new marine reserves, but I also spend them outdoors (often with NOAA colleagues!) trying to better understand the structure of the cetacean (or other focal) population at the center of conservation efforts.

Joining HICEAS was particularly special to me for a few different reasons. First, I had never been on a cetacean survey in the Pacific, so it was a chance to see new species like the false killer whale. For someone like me, whose research is more motivated by the concern for wildlife than by theoretical and technical questions, I need to see something swimming around in the ocean at least a few times a year.

Seth (far right) assists with visual observations from the flying bridge of the Lasker. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzanne Yin

Besides the species we expected to see, we also spent a day searching for the elusive Cross Seamount beaked whale. Scientists from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center have previously recorded sounds from a beaked whale near Cross Seamount that are unlike the sounds from known beaked whale species. As a result, our tracklines south of the main Hawaiian Islands traversed Cross Seamount in an attempt to identify what has mystified scientists up until this point. On several occasions, our acoustics team heard clicks that resembled what we were searching for, and we were even able to catch a quick glimpse of a diving animal, but we were unable to identify it before night fell. The fact that a potentially unidentified whale species still exists reminds us that we still have so much to learn about marine ecosystems.

On top of this, I had never been on a ship with seabird observers! Having the chance to sit on the flying bridge of the Lasker asking our bird team about species like Hawaiian petrels and sooty shearwaters was fantastic. Although I have always known that these species are highly migratory, just discussing the distances they fly and how they pinpoint rookeries in the middle of the Pacific Ocean piqued my interest even more. Like migratory cetaceans, the home ranges of seabirds are so vast that conservation measures need to consider the migratory corridors between foraging and breeding areas. Drawing that parallel was important and helped me consider how seabird data might contribute to conservation planning.

A red-footed booby soars overhead, looking for flying fish displaced by the path of the Lasker. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Seth Sykora-Bodie

Although Joe and Seth have returned to their studies, HICEAS 2017 is ongoing. Stay tuned to the HICEAS website for the latest updates!

All photos taken under research permit.

A day in the life of the East Island Exiles

How we stayed sane on the smallest island field camp in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Marylou Staman

Imagine this: You wake up on a cot, under a canvas tent, and blink your eyes, wondering where you are. As you remove your ear plugs, the dull sound of birds nesting under your tent becomes a cacophony of screams, honks, and wails, and the afternoon sunlight streaming through gaps in the tent walls burns your eyes. It’s hot, you’re exhausted, and yet you smile, because you finally remember that you’re on East Island, and in the middle of the greatest adventure of your life.

Monk seals and turtles often basked together on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

East Island, our home for the majority of our summer up at French Frigate Shoals in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is only about 2000 feet long and 400 feet wide. Because of its size and our initial impressions from satellite images, we originally dubbed our future home a “sand bar,” devoid of life. But upon closer inspection we found the island to be rich with birds, Hawaiian monk seals, vegetation, and of course, sea turtles. Even the beautiful turquoise water surrounding the island, our front yard, provided us with daily sightings of schooling trevally, foraging eagle rays, and huge tiger sharks, patrolling the shallow lagoon waters for disoriented albatross fledglings that landed on the water while learning how to fly. With the gorgeous scenery and wildlife keeping us company every day, it was easy to fall in love with our tiny island home.

Marylou, Jan Willem, and Alex (L-R) pose on their camp “front porch” on East Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

But what brought us to East Island? My husband, Jan Willem Staman, and I, along with our colleague Alex Reininger, made up the three-person Sea Turtle Research Team in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with the NOAA Fisheries Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program. It was our job this summer to set up a camp on East Island and study the hundreds of sea turtles that come to this small island to reproduce. While it is not known why approximately 96% of Hawaiian green sea turtle nesting takes place at French Frigate Shoals, we are learning more and more about this phenomenon with each passing field season. This season, we identified 871 individual male and female turtles with a small white number we gently painted onto their shells. On East Island alone we counted 413 females that came up to nest this season, more than last year’s 87 but less than the banner year of nearly 900 in 2014 (because turtles nest every few years, every population has natural seasonal highs and lows depending on which turtles decide to make the migration and nest). Along with numbering each turtle, we also gave each one small flipper tags and took their measurements to track their growth. Since researchers have been tagging in Hawaii for several decades already, it was exciting to find turtles that had tags from 10, 20, and even over 30 years ago!

Sea turtle researcher Jan Willem Staman counts the eggs of a nesting female turtle (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marylou Staman).

Because sea turtles nest at night, we had to adjust our sleeping schedule to make sure that we would be awake when the turtles were most active. That meant that our work day actually started around 4pm in the afternoon. Just like in the main Hawaiian Islands, the sea turtles at French Frigate Shoals would haul out onto the beach during the day to bask, or rest in the sun. From 4-6pm we would walk around East Island and record all of the turtles we saw based on the white numbers we wrote on their shells. On our very first day on East Island, we walked around the island and counted 229 basking sea turtles! However, that number steadily declined throughout the summer as more and more females finished laying their eggs and returned to the main Hawaiian Islands. Those females, with our white numbers still on their shells, have now been seen back around the main islands and have become a part of a unique citizen scientist project recently announced by NOAA! (Learn more: By the Numbers, Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii.)

The sea turtle research team didn’t need headlamps to see the turtles crawling up to nest when the moon was up (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

After completing our afternoon survey, we would spend a few hours transcribing the data and eating dinner before starting our night survey around 9pm. While in theory walking around a deserted island at night may sound spooky, there was actually so much going on that we didn’t have time to get creeped out. In addition to the dozens of nesting sea turtles crawling out each night, we also encountered sleeping monk seals and restless birds, all lit up by the most impressive display of stars I have ever seen. When the moon was up we didn’t even need headlamps, and when the moon was set, the darkness allowed the stars to light up the whole sky instead. We spent so much time on our night surveys looking for turtles on the ground, that I’d occasionally remind myself to look up, and the night sky always took my breath away.

Sea turtle #252 digs a nest in front of the East Island camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

When the sun began to rise on the horizon, it meant it was time to do one last lap around the island and head back to the tents. After 8-9 hours of walking laps around our sandy island, the biggest and completely unanticipated challenge we faced each day was still to come: trying to sleep! Between the loud birds and the hot sun, sleeping more than 2-3 hours in a row became a notable achievement around camp and something I do not take for granted now that we’re back here in Honolulu.

The stars shone a little brighter over East Island, where the only other light came from red headlamps the researchers wore during surveys (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

Jan Willem and I returned to Honolulu at the end of August and have been busy entering all of the data we compiled over the summer. In order to collect another month of nest data, Alex bravely stayed behind on East Island alone, with daily check-ins from the nearby monk seal camp on Tern Island. Sitting behind a desk in a cubicle is definitely not as adventure-like as carefully sneaking up behind nesting turtles to count their eggs, but we do value the data and enjoy the memories it elicits.