Grant to support humpback whale research awarded to Adam Pack

The grant will help support Prof. Pack’s ongoing research of humpback whales, including monitoring population abundance, distribution and trends, behavior, and overall health.

Adam Pack pictured on a boat.
Adam Pack

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has awarded a grant to a marine mammal scientist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo to support his humpback whale research.

Adam Pack, who holds a joint appointment in the departments of psychology and biology at UH Hilo, is among four awardees to receive the support to conduct research within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary for the fall 2021-spring 2022 humpback whale season.

The $5,000 grants support ongoing research and conservation efforts to protect humpback whales and their habitat in the sanctuary, including monitoring population abundance, distribution and trends, behavior, and overall health.

Pack, who founded the Marine Mammal Laboratory at UH Hilo and co-founded The Dolphin Institute, is currently conducting research on assessing stress in humpback whale mothers early and late in the breeding season in Maui waters by comparing blubber cortisol and corticosterone concentrations to body condition health measures.

The grant will help support his collaborative work with the Marine Mammal Research Program of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology, the Pacific Whale Foundation, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to examine stress hormone concentrations in humpback whale mothers over their extended residency in Hawaiian waters during winter and spring months, which may last 50 or more days.

“The Hawaiian islands are the principal mating and calving grounds for North Pacific humpback whales,” Pack says. “In Hawaiʻi, mothers fast and have to support their own energy needs as well as that of their nursing calves by relying on metabolized fat stores they have accumulated during summer months in Alaska while pregnant.”

Pack and a collaborative research team measure cortisol and corticosterone concentrations, two stress-related steroid hormones, in mothers with newly-born calves by extracting from them a tissue sample of blubber about the size of a pencil eraser using a sterile biopsy sampling technique.

“The biopsy sample can also be analyzed for progesterone concentration to reveal if a mother is also pregnant with her next calf,” he explains. “In conjunction with biopsy sampling, a drone is used to measure the mother’s body condition, as well as that of the calf, and identification images are taken of the mother’s tail flukes to match against archival catalogs to determine her minimum age and reproductive history.”

Watch a video about the research conducted last spring:

The number of male escorts present with the mother-calf pair is also documented as Pack’s earlier studies have shown that males seeking mating opportunities with mothers lead these females to expend more energy than if left alone with their calves.

“The findings from this study will help establish the natural stress response experienced by humpback whale mothers during the breeding season and allow researchers, the public and state and federal agencies charged with protecting humpback whales to better understand how natural stress variation may be compromised by anthropogenic stressors such as entanglement, vessel collisions, and underwater noise,” he says.

 Upcoming symposium

Pack will present his research at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary virtual research symposium Nov. 4 and 5, 2021. The symposium, which is open to the public, will be held 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. HST to highlight research taking place in sanctuary waters.

Media release