Day 8 – Searching for Spinners

January 23, 2012


After waking up at a seemingly too early time (you’d think I’d be getting used to this by now) we headed over for more planting fun! This time we had over 300 plants to plant – last time we had about 70 – and had help from the “professionals”. These guys are contracted to be on the island and gosh darn it are they good.

After falling into petrel holes – we did find birds and eggs and everyone is safe! – one too many times we finished the job and biked back. On the way back, we stopped at Turtle Beach to watch the sea turtles hauled out on the sand. There were also two monk seals hauled out on a nearby unused boat ramp that were completely zonked out.

Sea turtles lazily swam through the water and just as we were starting to turn back to head toward lunch we saw monk seal swimming! It’s breathtaking to see these animals in their natural environment, fat and happy! They look like they are doing well which is a major accomplishment for the species.

Later, we talked to Tracy Wurth, the monk seal biologist on the trip with us, and she told us the story behind the swimming seal. The seal – a female – was born in 1991 on French Frigate Shoals and was translocated to the main Hawaiian Islands into captive care for 8-14 months (this happened to some females in order to help them survive and preserve their reproductive potential) before she was translocated to Midway. She has done very well for herself giving birth to 12 pups – only 2-3 of them have survived, which is typical of the Northwestern islands. Recently, she has suffered a shark bite. Tracy has not been able to get a good look but she is swimming and moving around a good bit so it looks like she is doing well. Fingers crossed!

After lunch we hopped on the boat and set off in pursuit of spinner dolphins. Wind caused the waves to crash more than usual and cold water sprayed us as we went along. But the pursuit proved fruitful and we spotted a pod of over 150 spinners!

While again squealing like five-year old girls watching the spinners flip and fly over the water spinning like crazy we contemplated the idea of ecotourism. On the main islands of Hawaii, ecotours get people up close and personal to these amazing creatures. Some tours even boast swim-with programs and allow patrons in the water while the spinners swim by.

The issue stems from the sleeping pattern of the spinners. As I might have mentioned previous, these dolphins rest during the day, wake up and forage at night; this means ecotours that happen during the day disrupt this cycle, waking the dolphins and possibly causing an unsuccessful foraging trip that night.

So therein lies the dilemma. People want to see the dolphins (some people even believe they have a spiritual connection with the dolphins, like Joan Ocean, go to the link if you want a good laugh), tour operators believe that they have the right to continue tours, and scientists have an extremely hard time proving that these tours really do disrupt the dolphins.

Side note: our group had a permit to “harass” the dolphins in order to get dolphin ID photos for Pacific Island Photo Identification Network (PIPIN) which is a large photo database of all the spinners in the Hawaiian island chain. No dolphins were harmed in the making of this blog.

After returning to the shore a few of grabbed wetsuits and headed to the old cargo pier for snorkeling before dinner. Swimming under the pier little Convict fish joined us in our exploration. Silver Jacks flashed past while figuring out what we were doing in their world. I looked ahead and a large shadow loomed towards me; a 4-foot long Green Sea Turtle had swum up to say hello. He hung out for a while and then, deciding we were not anything to be interested in, dove to the depths.

I never wanted to leave the water, however, the cold had started to sneak its way through our wetsuits and we headed in. If I could, I would go everyday.

For more about today and amazing pictures and videos of the spinners, visit the class blog.