The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation
Robin W. Baird
University of Hawaii Press, 2016 (352pp.)
This look at the cetaceans that live around the Hawai'ian chain is amazing in every way. Well organized, well written, and stunningly illustrated with memorable photographs, it's the definitive book on its subject.
I've had the honor of talking with Dr. Baird about a paper I'm writing on cetacean tracking, and he's done extensive work in this area. He includes contact maps that show which species are likely to be where (whether in the shallows or 3,000 meters down) and which are resident and which only transit the islands.
Landlubbers, even relatively well-read ones like myself, then to think of one patch of an ocean as pretty much like another and an island as a big rock that merely supports some terrestrial and coastal species. Baird opens by explaining clearly that things are a lot more complex. This area of the Pacific is a kind of desert and the island chain an oasis which alters currents, temperatures, phytoplankton populations, and other aspects of the surrounding sea. This in turn greatly influences the suitability of the areas to its many species of cetaceans.
Seven species of baleen whales have been spotted around Hawai'i (only Bryde's whale appears to have a resident population), along with eighteen species of toothed whales (including dolphins), eleven of which have gone native. Baird, along with colleagues and volunteers, has been studying these animals since 1999, and every season spent in the islands has brought new knowledge of the individual species and the ecosystems they influence and inhabit. There's a good explanation of how cetaceans are studied in the area, including one tool I didn't know about: a laser that puts spots on a photographed animal 15 cm apart so size can be judged.
Then come the species descriptions, every one of which offers something new. I had no idea that false killer whales not only engage in a game of “pass the dead fish" with prey but include visiting humans in the game, or that pilot whales sometimes grab humans to BE the playtoy, or that a sperm whale once deliberately rammed and sunk a 40-foot yacht for reasons completely unknown. The descriptions of the enigmatic beaked whales are especially informative.
Baird covers the conservation status and threats to each species as part of his descriptions: none of the Hawai’an population is in imminent danger of extinction, but many bear watching, and the impact of sonar and other human activities is worrying at best and needs more research,
The photographs, some from above the water (e.g., a melon-headed whale's dorsal fin with a round hole bit clean through by a cookie-cutter shark) many underwater (e.g., an oceanic whitetip shark following close behind pilot whales) are all excellent, and some are jaw-dropping.
Baird writes with obvious technical expertise, but clearly enough for the interested nonscientist to follow, so this book will hopefully spread the knowledge of Hawai’ian cetaceans to a broad audience. This is a magnificent achievement.