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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Habitat Selection in Female-Calf Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Pairs on the Hawaiian Breeding Grounds

  • Author(s): Cartwright, Rachel
  • Gillespie, Blake
  • LaBonte, Kristen
  • Mangold, Terence
  • Venema, Amy
  • Eden, Kevin
  • Sullivan, Matthew
  • et al.
Abstract

The Au'au Channel between the islands of Maui and Lanai, Hawaii comprises critical breeding habitat for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) of the Central North Pacific stock. However, like many regions where marine mega-fauna gather, these waters are also the focus of a flourishing local eco-tourism and whale watching industry. Our aim was to establish current trends in habitat preference in female-calf humpback whale pairs within this region, focusing specifically on the busy, eastern portions of the channel. We used an equally-spaced zigzag transect survey design, compiled our results in a GIS model to identify spatial trends and calculated Neu's Indices to quantify levels of habitat use. Our study revealed that while mysticete female-calf pairs on breeding grounds typically favor shallow, inshore waters, female-calf pairs in the Au'au Channel avoided shallow waters (<20 m) and regions within 2 km of the shoreline. Preferred regions for female-calf pairs comprised water depths between 40-60 m, regions of rugged bottom topography and regions that lay between 4 and 6 km from a small boat harbor (Lahaina Harbor) that fell within the study area. In contrast to other humpback whale breeding grounds, there was only minimal evidence of typical patterns of stratification or segregation according to group composition. A review of habitat use by maternal females across Hawaiian waters indicates that maternal habitat choice varies between localities within the Hawaiian Islands, suggesting that maternal females alter their use of habitat according to locally varying pressures. This ability to respond to varying environments may be the key that allows wildlife species to persist in regions where human activity and critical habitat overlap.

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