Meagan Jones’ holy trinity is science, education and conservation.
Co-founder of Whale Trust, a Paia-based nonprofit organization devoted
to the study of humpback whales, Jones believes that, “science is the
foundation for education and education becomes the foundation for
conservation and protection of whales.”
As such, her organization is helping organize Whale Quest, a charity
event this weekend in Kapalua. The event will include educational
seminars, whale watch excursions, art and photo exhibitions and a
charity golf tournament. Recently Jones shared some of her insight into
humpback whales and the need for a program of this nature.
MAUI TIME WEEKLY: Why do we need this kind of community forum?
MEAGAN JONES: There’s no way
we can protect whales unless we have a better understanding of the
environment that they live in. I think what Whale Quest is all about
[is] bringing together the researchers with the people who are trying
to tell the story with the people who are out here trying to understand
the ocean to better protect these animals.
How do we affect the Pacific Ocean’s whale population?
One of the issues we have here is the number of boats and the speed
of boats that are going here. The number of ship strikes that are now
being reported are higher than in the past. I will say that we don’t
know for sure if they’re reporting them more. As the population
increases and the number of boats from the ocean increase, and the
speed of vessels and the bigger vessels increase, it makes sense that
there’ll be more interactions.
What makes Hawai`i so special when it comes to studying humpbacks?
This is the only breeding and calving ground in the United States
for humpback whales. It’s also, of all the places in the world that
I’ve studied whales, the best place. We have warmer waters with a lot
of clarity, a lot of visibility, which allows us to kind of flip in and
see what they’re doing underneath the surface so our underwater
observations are great. Also because of the high West Maui mountains,
we have a block from the trade winds so that provides kind of calm,
protected waters for us to work in.
And then we have this incredible concentration of humpbacks here
that you don’t ordinarily find so close to shore. You put warm, calm,
protected waters with a high concentration of whales close to shore and
you pretty much have the ideal situation.
How did you get involved in humpback whale research?
I got involved back in the late ’80s. I was doing a masters with
kids and ended up studying dolphins. My advisor wanted to compare how
kids process information with how dolphins do. It’s one of those
moments in life when you know exactly what you’re going to do. I then
spent several years working in marine education kind of trying to break
down what we were learning from a scientific perspective and creating
education programs for the public around that. And then about 10 years
ago I decided that I needed to go back into the field.
The whales tend to be my muse. I started working on my Ph.D. and
formed a nonprofit organization, Whale Trust, about five years ago,
with two of my colleagues, Jim Darling and Flip Nicklin.
I saw on your website that your
research centers around the reproductive and mating strategies of
female humpbacks. Why does that interest you?
When I started working with Jim and Flip about 10 years ago, the
main focus of our work was looking at the social function of humpback
songs, looking at why males sing songs during the wintertime. And what
the presumption was at that time—that the males must be singing to
attract females. And in fact our research has shown was that male
singers attract other males, not females.
We’re thinking that maybe the song is a way to facilitate these
male-male interactions so they can sort out their own hierarchy within
their own social structure. The male is trying to sort out, “Are you my
friend? Are you going to work with me to help me get a female or are
you going to work against me?” Then the question obviously becomes,
well, where does the female fit in?
That’s what led to my research and looking at female behavior here
on the breeding grounds, specifically looking at how reproductive
status may affect female behavior. And looking at male-female
interactions here on the breeding ground.
I noticed that you’re in charge of
coordinating all the children’s activities at Whale Quest. What kinds
of activities are planned?
There’s fifth and sixth graders that are coming. There are about 200
of them that will be coming. We will have a matching station where each
kid gets their own five-by-seven whale tail and they learn, in this
one, how being able to identify an individual whale helps us learn
about the whale. In other words, if we can identify an individual that
can tell us who the whale hangs out with, it can tell us what their
migration patterns are—they could go to summer in Alaska, they come
here in the winter. We let them know how that feeds into the research
and each kid goes throughout the room and finds their matching whale
tail. It’s a very critical part of what we do is trying to simply match
all the individual whales with all the picture that we take so they get
to try that.
Whale Quest runs Feb. 16-18 at the Ritz Carlton, Kapalua. All events are free. For more information call 669-2440. MTW