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Humpback whales swimming
Mother humpback and calf.

Humpback whales serve as a sentinel species that reflects changes in the health of ocean ecosystems. Four mini-grants to support humpback whale research conducted within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary for the fall 2021 and spring 2022 humpback whale season were awarded by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

The four grantees were each awarded $5,000 to fund their projects. Grant recipients include the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), the Pack Marine Mammal Laboratory of the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, the Hawaiʻi Marine Mammal Consortium and the Whale Trust at the University of California-Santa Cruz. These grants will support ongoing research and conservation efforts to protect humpback whales and their habitat in the sanctuary, including monitoring population abundance, distribution and trends, behavior and overall health.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is hosting a virtual research symposium in November 2021 as part of the Hoʻi Koholā: Return of the Humpback Whale Month events. The grant recipients will be presenting an overview of their projects and the broader impact of their research.

UH Mānoa

HIMB’s Marine Mammal Research Program project is titled “Using Aerial Photogrammetry to Quantify Humpback Whale Energetics and Health Status Across Their Hawaiian Breeding and Southeast Alaskan Foraging Grounds.” Aerial photogrammetry via unoccupied aerial systems (drones) and biopsy-derived adipose analyses will be used to quantify the body condition and overall health and energetics of humpback whales in both their breeding and feeding grounds. Quantifying and monitoring the health status of these populations provide a valuable means of tracking and documenting the long-term health of marine ecosystems in the face of climate change and anthropogenic stressors.

UH Hilo

UH Hilo’s Pack Marine Mammal Laboratory project is titled “Assessing Stress in Humpback Whale Mothers Early and Late in the Breeding Season in Maui Waters by Comparing Blubber Cortisol and Corticosterone Concentrations to Body Condition Health Measures.” As humpback whale calves are dependent on their mothers during their first year of life, a healthy mother whale is essential for ensuring the success of these calves, who will someday become part of the breeding population. Steroid hormones are increasingly used as a health biomarker.

The collection of blubber for stress hormone biomarker analysis was rated at a 2019 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meeting of humpback whale researchers as a priority knowledge gap. UH Hilo’s project will address this gap by examining stress hormone biomarker concentrations, in conjunction with unmanned aerial system photogrammetry, in humpback whale mothers during the early and late season in the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

For more information, see the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation website.

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