Watching cetaceans play in waters of Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape was a lovely experience. The whales and dolphins love to entertain while they guide travelers during bad weather, according to the village elders. Their performances are so varied; they breach, spin, spy-hop (when dolphins pop their heads above the surface and look around), flap their tail or flippers – all part of their communication system, but an amazing display of behaviour for us. They also make different noises underwater, sometimes to attract mates or just talk to each other.
I was part of the 2012 WCS Fiji Cetacean Hotspot Survey (1st to 11th August), together with Margy and Waisea, community representatives, and Dr Cara Miller from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) as the cetacean expert to guide us. We were hosted in the beautiful village of Nasau in Ra Province, northeastern Viti Levu, where we were welcomed with lot of excitement.
On Day 1 of the survey we were rewarded with a sighting of a humpback whale as soon as we reached Vatu-i-Ra Island – a tiny speck in the waters of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, over 20 km from the nearest land. We started by testing two different methods for recording sightings: boat transects and land-based sightings from a vantage point with a 360° view of the open ocean. Later the land-based team joined the boat team due to bad weather preventing clear sightings from land. Day 2 was a day without any sightings, although we did manage to record some faint whale songs. I was getting anxious, hoping I would catch some close-up glimpses of the whales and dolphins recorded in previous years. Things improved on Day 3 as we spotted a pod of Bottlenose dolphin adults with calves – they were cute, fat, and fast swimmers. Much to our delight, one of the calves was spy-hoping while our cameras snapped. The same day we encountered a pod of Shortfin pilot whales scattered over a larger area, with one of the group coming to check us out – you can see a short clip of his visit below!
We had evening events every night where Waisea explained the day’s happenings to the villagers and we showed them videos, pictures and songs. All songs were recorded using a hydrophone provided by WDCS, so that the songs could be analysed later and compared cetacean songs from other regions. Some of the songs we recorded on Day 4 sounded like whale and dolphin rap, where the whales would sing first and the dolphins would respond to it! The adventure continued with plenty of whales and dolphins sighted on the 4th day – Spinner dolphins, Shortfin pilot whales and Humpback whales were all there, swimming happily in the water. After a break on Sunday, we were welcomed on Monday with deteriorating weather which restricted us to land-based survey for a few days. Finally we managed to complete our last few boat transects, with a few more sightings and songs recorded.
I returned very happy because we saw so many different cetaceans, and recorded songs almost every day – it was an adventurous trip!
WCS Fiji gratefully acknowledge funding from The Marisla Foundation to carry out this work.