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Conservation Research: Biologists team up with PMRF

09/07/21 09:59 AM

By MC2 Samantha Jetzer
PMRF Public Affairs

Despite the early hour on the morning of Aug. 10 at Kīkīaola Small Boat Harbor, a handful of trucks were already pulling up to the pier, tugging small fishing boats. It was before sunrise, and the water was dark and calm, the waves blocked by the breakwater off in the distance.

The trucks quickly began to pull up to the harbor’s ramp to unload their vessels into the water, eager to start a productive day out on the sea. Dr. Robin Baird, a marine biologist for the Cascadia Research Collective, and his team of researchers and volunteers were among the eager sea-goers arriving as part of their 18th field project off of the island of Kauai.

The Cascadia Research Collective began efforts on Kauai in 2003 to research species and environmental areas that require conservation efforts.

The project has been funded by Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CPF) through the Marine Species Monitoring Program for over a decade to study the effects of sonar on the movements and behavior of odontocetes (also known as toothed whales) by attaching depth transmitting satellite tags. These tags monitor movement patterns and diving behavior of these species which help scientists to better understand what the exposure of mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS) has on these animals.

“I’ve been working with marine mammals for 35 years,” said Baird. “Since I was a child, I always wanted to work with animals, and then in college had the opportunity to start volunteering with an organization that focused on marine mammal educational activities, and shortly after with a researcher studying killer whales.”

The Navy had four high-priority species that were being heavily sought after for data; Blainville’s beaked whales, falsekiller whales, short-finned pilot whales, and melon-headed whales. The collective was able to come in contact with eight species of cetaceans (more commonly known as whales and dolphins) between Aug. 1 and Aug. 14, deploying 14 satellite tags on six different species.

“Our work off Kauai is part of a long-term effort to learn more about different dolphin and whale populations off the island,” said Baird. “This was our most successful effort we’ve had.”

This last undertaking was the 18th field project off of Kauai, where Baird and his team’s mission was to head out to sea to deploy these tags on cetaceans. Part of this project’s success is due to the collaboration of scientists like Baird with Pacific Missile Range Facility’s (PMRF) hydrophone range.

The passive acoustic data received using the hydrophones is used by researchers (also funded by CPF) from Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Naval Information Warfare Center to monitor the locations of different cetaceans that were detected on the range which assisted Baird and his team to find groups to tag. This equipment was especially helpful in detecting high-priority groups due to the unique acoustics of each species.

One of the volunteers with Baird’s team that day was Alyssa Piauwasdy, a field biologist with the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit on contract with PMRF to support the Natural Resources program.

“The day we had with Cascadia was a productive one since we were lucky to track down a group of short-finned pilot whales,” said Piauwasdy. “I know the crew has had days where they’re out on rough, open seas all day only to not find a single target species. It can be frustrating, but the successful days and drive to discover more about these animals makes it all worth it.”

The effort to deploy tags was in conjunction with the Navy Submarine Command Course. This course uses MFAS during its training scenarios so it is an opportune time to look into how marine life responds to it.

By estimating the received levels (RLs) for satellite-tagged odontocetes, Navy scientists can learn whether large-scale movement of these species occurred as a direct response to activities conducted by hull-mounted surface ships with MFAS exposure.

The movements and behavior of these different species is being monitored before, during and after this course is conducted. Reports from prior efforts may be found at

“Having a thorough understanding of the life history of these cetacean species is important for making sound conservation and management decisions,” said Piauwasdy.

In addition to deploying tags, one of the long-term goals of this mission is to document the presence of other wildlife, like seabirds and endangered species, for historical record keeping. Some of the main points of interest are population size, whether they’re resident or part of open ocean populations, behavioral trends, how they use their environment and how they are affected by human activities.

“I like to study seabirds because their ability to make a living out on the open ocean fascinates me,” said Piauwasdy. “There is so much unknown about their basic ecology, navigation, foraging, and how they will persist in this ever-changing environment. It’s fun to imagine the places they’ve been and the things they see while endlessly traveling across the ocean.”

The importance of photographing these species is important for photo-ID catalogs used to estimate the abundance and trends of these species. This was the first project that the team had been able to document Fraser’s dolphins off Kauai island, and they were also able to identify multiple seabirds, a whale shark and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

“This is only the second project we’ve ever tagged Blainville’s beaked whales off Kauai,” said Baird. “Both of the tags deployed are working well and providing both GPS locations and dive data, so we are learning a lot about that species and will learn a lot about how their behavior changes in response to sonar exposure.”

As the morning turned into mid-day, the team decided to head back to shore to avoid some rough seas that were coming in, due to increasing winds. Satisfied with a productive day on the water, Baird steered the boat back towards the harbor, bouncing over waves and drenching the team in sea spray.

PMRF’s environmental team’s next effort is the Dark Skies program that limits the light pollution on base to prevent fallout for young birds that use the moon and stars to guide them on their first flight to sea. 

For more information, please call the Natural Resources Hotline at 808-208-4416.