KoholaLatest update February 11, 2019 Started on August 1, 2017
Every great success story must showcase the next generation. However, in the last half century; researchers, filmmakers, and conservationists have yet to witness a birth of the North Pacific Humpback Whale. One of the most biologically significant events in any animal’s life is still a big mystery to us. The goal of this film is to, for the first time ever, capture a birth of the poster animal for the conservation movement. With that footage as the center piece, we can tell their story.
This is the story of a sentient being's epic battle to prove to the world that is has every right to call this pale blue dot its home. The North Pacific Humpback Whale was hunted to the brink of extinction. The early ‘70s brought us close to the point of no return; only about 500 of these whales were left in the entire North Pacific. Fewer than 50 years later, we are looking at a population closer to 25,000. In less than one lifetime, we have witnessed one of the greatest success stories in conservation history—one that finally culminated in August 2016 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finally removed the North Pacific Humpback Whale from the endangered species list. Thanks to the compassion and empathy of the same species that brought these whales into the darkness, a veil has been lifted revealing a bright future. Due to the efforts of many we have successfully helped restore one of this planet’s oldest living forms of consciousness. Proof that we can make a difference. Proof that change is possible.
KOHOLA is not just a tale of love, death, and perseverance, but also one of immense hope. It’s a story that can ignite a revolution. The popular conversations of the day are those of doom and gloom, death, and destruction, with stories of success and inspiration going unnoticed. But today, more than ever, we need reasons to feel hopeful and inspired. KOHOLA, the Hawaiian word for whale, is a story that needs to be told.
This project represents a quest for knowledge. We are searching for answers to questions that researchers, conservationists, and filmmakers have been asking for over half a century.
During our field time, and in our attempts at filming the next generation, we have seen and documented behavior that is still unknown to scientists. Carl Sagan once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." That statement is at the core of this project.
The most astounding fact about the ocean is the fact that we still barely know anything about it. The fact that there still are so many unanswered questions, or better yet, the fact that there still are so many questions that haven't even been asked yet is what drives us.
We have an appetite for wonder and the most beautiful thing we can experience is the unknown.
Continue to go green, but always remember to be blue, Chris
The 2019 film season is off to a beautiful start for the Kohola team! Chris, Mike and I (Anna) were able to get out in January for the first excursion of the season. Sea conditions were glassy calm, and without the wind blowing in our ears, we could hear the blows of whales from miles away, punctuated intermittently by the smacking sound of active whales slapping fins and bodies onto the surface of the water. These were the most ideal conditions!
As we watched commercial whale watching boats head toward the surface active whales, we focused our intentions on finding quieter, less active whales. Very little is known about the behaviors surrounding a birthing mother, so it can be hard to say where we should put our attention. However, whale watching vessels often focus on watching more surface active whales, as they provide more of a 'show' for passengers. In the thousands of hours spent watching such activities, a birth has not been witnessed, so it is safe to say that those situations hold a lower chance of including a birth then those groups of whales that don't draw the attention of recreational whale watchers.
So, our aim is to observe those social dynamics from whales that do not glean quite as much attention from the vast majority of boaters. Our team has worked in the whale watching industry for years and if asked how their day went, and they said anything about only seeing diving pairs, you knew that they had a very dull and uneventful day. Diving pairs, are known for surfacing for a few breaths, doing a fluke up dive and not returning to the surface for 20-30 minutes. This is not the best if you have a group of restless whale watchers who have expectations of breaches and the like. As a captain of a whale watching boat I often only watch the diving pairs as a last resort when I can't find a group with more surface behaviors.
Last season, our entire crew became captivated by the activities of diving pairs. I can still remember the first time I drifted over a foot print at the surface, looked down through crystal clear water and saw two humpbacks hanging beneath me. They were motionless aside from the slightest movement of pectoral fins used to maintain position. Thirty feet down, nose to nose, they remained for their full dive time. When surfacing they would move a short distance, dive down, and realign themselves in the same configuration. They repeated the process over the course of multiple dive cycles. 'What does it all mean?!?!!!' Perhaps you are wondering that? If so join the club. It seems highly likely that this is simply a resting behavior, but when watching animals as intelligent as these, in an environment that is so foreign to humans, you have to wonder if something more is going on then meets the eye. All I can tell you after watching multiple diving pairs is that it is hands down one of the most beautiful interactions I've ever watched.
Luckily, you do not have to take my word for it. We were able to find another diving pair to start off our season, and Mike created a short video of the interaction. You'll notice these two aren't nose to nose. We've seen multiple variations in their body positioning when below surface, though they do seem to maintain their respective roles through their dives. In this video you'll notice the whale with the white belly is vertical and the darker whale horizontal. This was consistent through all their dives until we parted ways.
I hope you enjoy the footage, and if you are an avid whale watcher perhaps this will increase your enjoyment of the diving pairs!
Found A Whale Placenta!
Being the first to film the birth of a humpback whale will involve a mix of luck, skill, and a lot of water time. A combination of these paid off for our team member, Anna Garner, on February 17th, when she found a placenta freshly passed from a mother whale. Here is her account of that day on the water.
I captain a whale watching raft out of Lahaina for Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF). On the first trip of the day it was glassy calm. Around 9 am I came across a female, escort and a small calf. The mother had a noticeably hooked dorsal fin making her very distinctive, the male had a fairly blunt and squared off dorsal fin, and the calf initially appeared to have no dorsal fin at all. Once or twice I used binoculars and could see that the dorsal fin was laying completely flat to the calf’s back. I have worked on whale watching boats since 2006, and I don’t recall seeing too many dorsal fins quite as flopped over as this one. Additionally, this calf was tiny and barely breaking the surface as it came up. The general impression that it was fairly meek. The color of the calf was the same dark grey/black of the mother.
After twenty minutes or so I left. The activity level was minimal from all three whales and they were beginning to travel west. We went off to look at other whales.
Closer to 10 am I found the same mother, calf and escort. I recognized the distinctive hooked fin of the mother and the flopped dorsal of the calf. The male appeared to be the same as in the prior encounter. I never saw the tail flukes on any of them so I can’t confirm by that method that it was the same whales. However, I do feel confident that we had happened upon the same mother, calf and escort again. I didn’t see any other whales to watch so I cruised along with the trio on their left side as they traveled west. Nothing particularly dramatic happened. They swam. Sometimes a little faster, sometimes slowly, not always in a straight line but generally heading in the same direction. At one point the calf slapped it’s tail as it was swimming. I noticed that the tail had a rubbery/floppy appearance, though I wouldn’t say it looked crumpled at all. Along the same lines, I didn’t notice fetal folds, though from a solid 130 or so yards away (I checked with the rangefinder once or twice) it isn’t the sort of thing I could see. I did use the binoculars on the initial sighting, but the calf had such minimal surfacings that I didn’t see enough of the body to say if fetal folds were present. On the 10 o’clock sighting I was mostly focused on driving the boat and less on binocular usage.
Finally, something happened. It was more of the same really, a slight dive/round out from the mother combined with a swish of the tail that created a bit of a wake. The ocean rippled from the dive and I could see a white patch where the whale went down.
As I drove over I did think that it might be a placenta, due to the young nature of the calf, the fact it hadn’t been their prior, and the constant hope that I will see something unusual and exciting in the midst of a 12 hour work day. As we got closer to the spot it did look a lot like a white plastic bag. When I pulled up alongside it we could see some red attached to the white blotch. The water around the placenta had blood in it. Just a light cloud of blood that tinged the water a brownish green color, and it dissipated fairly quickly while we watched. There were lots of little pieces of white, like tissue paper floating around the main piece. We were lucky to have an OB Gyn on the boat and she was able to give me a rough idea of what we were looking at: The white section that was about four feet long and two feet wide was the amniotic sac; the placenta appeared to be ripped in half dangling off either end. There were veins running through the surface that were as big around as a finger.
If you are trying to create a mental picture allow me to assist you. Envision filling a white garbage bag with raw hamburger meat and throwing it in the ocean. Done! You basically have yourself the after birth of a whale.
I’m sure everyone who will read this will have their own interpretation of the events. Here are mine:
I think that calf was born very close to the time we first saw it, but I have no idea how close we might have been to the actual event.
I think it took the mother about an hour of swimming to pass the after birth. A human can often take 10-30 minutes. An hour seems like it would make sense. Does the swimming and contraction of the tail muscles aid in expelling the after birth? Seems likely, and I am curious about that.
Based on my observations, I’d say that female passed the after birth right at the surface before the dive. I think I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I didn’t see any sharks in the area, nor did the female loiter in the area. I’ve wondered if a female might eat the after birth. Certain mammal species do, but in this instance it didn’t appear to be on the agenda.
Seems worth mentioning that I did not collect the after birth. Tempting to be sure, but I am under the impression that you need a permit to collect any part of a whale. I am not sure what happened to the after birth. Though I returned to the same general area on future trips we didn’t come across anything.
I want to take a moment to thank Annelise Cochran for being an awesome naturalist and crew member who was just as stoked to find a whale placenta. She took some great photos of the moment that can be viewed on the PWF facebook page. Also thank you to Jeanne, our passenger who shared her photos with me. Mine were worthless, and it was very kind of her to share. She is also the OB Gyn who interpreted the photos for me. It was the first placenta I’ve ever seen, and I knew none of the anatomy until she enlightened me. All 18 of my passengers were excited and good sports about hanging out with a whale placenta for 10-15 minutes of their whale watch, I’m glad I had such a nerdy, enthusiastic bunch to share the encounter with.
P.S. I struggle to add more then one photo to my posts here. Probably because I (Anna) can be somewhat inept when technology is involved. So you can view an almost identical blog post, with MORE PHOTOS at Kohola Film
Mariah! Welcome to the Team!!!
We are thrilled to announce a new addition to the Kohola Film Project!
Mariah J Gill
Community Outreach Liaison
Mariah loves the water. She and her sisters were essentially raised by the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. She grew up surfing, swimming, and diving offshore from Lahaina and was taught very early on to respect and protect the ocean in all its power, beauty and fragility. After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, Mariah attended the University of Southern California where she studied environmental science with a focus on marine conservation. During her four years at USC, Mariah’s marine based research took her to Catalina Island off the coast of California, the Island of Guam, and the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. After graduating with honors and a Bachelor of Science (BS), Mariah moved further from home to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where she earned her Master’s degree in Environmental Management (MEM) with a concentration on coastal resource management. At Yale, her research took her to the US Virgin Islands, back to the Republic of Palau, and all the way to Bodø, Norway in the Arctic Circle. She also had the opportunity to work with Palau’s first UN Ambassador of the Oceans and Seas, the late Stuart Beck, as a student researcher and campaigner in New York City. At the core of her research was the question, “How do we best manage the many competing interests for coastal and marine resources in our ever-changing world to ensure a clean, bountiful and beautiful future for not only our children, but our great-great-great grandchildren?”
Since moving home to Lahaina, Mariah has worked hard to better her community and continues to seek the answer to that question. She works as an environmental consultant, teaches yoga, and volunteers as a Yale Alumni Ambassador providing students on Maui the opportunity to have face-to-face interviews to support their college applications to Yale University. She also stays busy by organizing community service events and free public yoga classes to clean up and bring peace and positivity back to our public spaces. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors hiking, swimming, surfing and diving.
Mariah will serve as our Community Outreach Liaison and will work to connect our team with local, cultural, and historical mana`o and stories about kohola. She is very excited about using the power of photography and film to inspire respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. She believes that conservation efforts are not successful without grassroots support, respect and innovation. Her skills as a water sportswoman will also be a welcomed addition to the team.
Stepping Up Our Free Diving Game
Watching the subject of your film dive majestically into the deep blue can be a beautiful sight...until you realize they are gone. Humpback Whales have the capacity to dive to depths of around 600 feet. Even though the Au'au channel's average depth is closer to 350 feet, we find that our whales are still able to out dive even the strongest free diver on our team.
That is why we were so excited to bring out Will Trubridge and Sachiko Fukumoto as photo assistants for the day! These two are exceptional free divers. Will Trubridge holds multiple free diving records and can reach depths of 400 feet. Not only were they able to assist with capturing deeper footage, but they also shared some of their free diving knowledge.
Welcome to the team, Sylvia!
Thanks to a grant from National Geographic Society, and donations from the public on our GoFundMe page, we were able to purchase a boat!
Our team spent hours, days even scouring craigslist for a boat that met our criteria. Meaning a boat that was functional, big enough to fit the team, and within our price range.
We eventually met Sylvia, a stately beauty who moved here from Idaho. She was accompanied by Johnson, a 40 hp engine. Drew and Anna went to inspect them and found what we'd been looking for: a functional vessel, well cared for, and ready to hit the water.
Sylvia is the name we gave her. Named after the great Sylvia Earle, a world renown marine biologist, explorer and author, just to name a few of the hats she has worn throughout her career. She is an inspiration to our entire team, and we think this is just the kind of project she might enjoy being a part of so we unofficially add her to the team!
Johnson was born in 1976 ten years after the moratorium on hunting humpback whales in the North Pacific. It the lifetime of this engine, it has unknowingly existed along side one of the greatest comeback stories of any animal. Johnson, though old, is THE CLEANEST ENGINE any of us have ever laid eyes on. I'm proud to say after a few days on the water (more on that later), both Sylvia and Johnson are running well!
Thank you to all of you who helped get her on the team!
On the water? In the Water!
Using the funding we have received through National Geographic Society and our GoFundMe backers, we have been able to make it out on the water, and more importantly in the water with Humpback Whales.
As you can see, this has resulted in beautiful images captured by our lead photographer, Drew Sulock. These peaceful looking moments belay the amount of effort it takes to get into the water with these animals.
Whales have evolved to spend a solid 90% of their life below the surface of the ocean. This one fact allows much of their lives to be shrouded in mystery, hence the need for our project. We have found, and sat observing, whales that have simply dove into the depths and disappeared before we had chance to jump in and film them. We have also had fleeting encounters with some whales before they show off their skills, and out swim us.
Luckily, this is the sort of thing we saw coming. We knew there would be challenges to observing wild animals in a habitat we weren't built to live in. However, we picked our team partially based on their experience observing whale behaviors. As marine naturalists living in Hawai'i we have spent chunks of our lives spending twelve or more hours a day on the water watching humpback whales specifically. Those years spent simply observing are paying off now, by helping us hone in on which whales we can get in the water to film with, and more importantly which of those have a likelihood of being a pregnant female.
We will continue to come across challenges, and we will continue to overcome them. We are currently looking for underwater scooters to borrow for the season, should that kind of speed become necessary. We will continue to be out on the water diving, and filming. We look forward to sharing more of our footage, and finally the first footage of a humpback whale giving birth!
All images taken respectfully via NMFS Permit #20993
The team is assembled! Our permit (NMFS #20993) has been acquired, and we are ready to begin filming!
There is at least one more critical piece.....oh yes, funding. The ever present need for funds to help us acquire cameras, housings, and a boat. As many people know the word boat can sometimes stand for 'Break Out Another Thousand' as they always require fuel, some fixing, an array of equipment and tools to keep it up and running, not to mention the safety gear necessary for all sea going vessels.
We are working to find multiple sources of funding. We are fortunate to be supported in one way or another by a variety of groups, including National Geographic Society, Naish, Mares, Meet the Ocean, and Maui Jim. They have been generous enough to assist by providing us with gear or funding. The hunt for financial backers is never ending so we decided to open up a gofundme campaign to allow members of the public to help fund a project they believe in.
If you are reading this and you:
a) want to learn more about us
b) help fund our project
Please check out:
Please know in advance that your support, and contributions to this project are deeply appreciated.
It has been along time coming, but it is finally time to introduce the core team of the Kohola film project! These individuals were chosen based on the strong array of skills and knowledge they possess that will lead to the success of this project.
First we have Annie Goodenough and believe me… she is more than just good enough.
Annie is a self-proclaimed whale nerd. She is currently on her 8th season working with Humpback Whales. She has witnessed their behavior off the Stellwagen Bank in New England, the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, and the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Maui County. She migrates with the whales and is going to be one of our scientific liaisons and advisors.
With her experience as a Naturalist and her ability to engage an audience, Annie will also act as our public liaison and manage our outreach. While our filmmakers are in the water focused on composing shots, Annie will be on the lookout for sharks or any other potential dangers.
Annie brings her upbeat and infectious attitude as well as her extensive and vast knowledge of the behavior of these whales and we are thrilled to have her on the team.
Chris Cilfone is a marine biologist/award winning filmmaker/National Geographic Explorer based on Maui, HI.
Chris's passion for educating the public about marine conservation has taken him all over the world. He has had the opportunity to collect algae samples deep within the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, to teach kids about the ocean in the Florida Keys, and to present his film One Voice at Le Musée Océanographique De Monaco.
His short films promote ocean stewardship and have been featured at film festivals throughout the world. He has won numerous awards for his work including: Ocean Geographic’s 2014 Picture of the Year: Master of Competition, Best Short Film at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monaco, and the Hero Award at the My Hero Film Festival.
Michael Donohoe is the Co-Investigator, DOP and Editor for Koholā.
From the time Mike left Columbus, OH in 2009, his goal was to be a wildlife conservation filmmaker. Mike has incorporated video into his work every stop along the way from his time as the Sea Turtle Intern with Conservation International, to his time as an Americorps Member at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and finally as a Naturalist in Maui.
Mike stepped away from the boats to focus on growing his knowledge and experience with filmmaking, from filming the world's largest waves, to weddings, to documentary films.
You will usually find Mike bodysurfing, freediving, or on the dance floor. He has brought the world some of the first footage of Pe’ahi from below the wave.
Drew Sulock is an award-winning photographer, Licensed Coast Guard Captain, SCUBA Instructor, and expedition leader for the National Geographic Student Expedition Program.
His work has been featured in Rock & Ice Magazine, and on NationalGeographic.com.
He holds a masters in Marine Affairs and his extensive knowledge of field research and underwater photography will give us the edge we need to capture an event that has evaded researchers, filmmakers, and conservationists for the last half century.
Anna Garner is an overall great human being. She has lived on Maui for 7 years, taking breaks here and there to sail around the world.
She holds a 100-ton Master Captain's License and has years of experience working with institutes conducting research on humpback whales. Anna will serve as our lead scientific advisor; combining her extensive knowledge of the humpback whales with her experience and connections to top researchers around the world. She is our go to person for information, fact checking, and scientific support.
We are thrilled to have Anna join our team in the pursuit to film one of the most coveted births in the entire animal kingdom. Her knowledge will give us great insight into the mind of these whales.
It is our goal to film an event that has eluded researchers, filmmakers, and conservationists for over half a century. This winter in the warm protected waters of Maui County we will try to capture, for the first time ever, a birth of the poster animal for the conservation movement, the Humpback Whale.
My name is Chris Cilfone and I’m a marine biologist, filmmaker, and National Geographic Explorer based on Maui
We need the ocean for our survival but for the first time in the history of this planet the ocean needs us too. It has been my job for the past 7 years to spark conservation through inspiration. To show the public why these coral reefs, whales, turtles, and fish are worth saving and to show them why this ocean is worth protecting. My passion for educating the public about marine conservation has brought me all over the world. From collecting algae samples deep within the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska to teaching the nation's youth about the ocean in the Florida Keys to presenting at Le Musée Océanographique De Monaco, I have worked with people from all backgrounds.
Combining my passion for the ocean with my background as a story teller, I have educated thousands of people from around the world about the importance of our marine ecosystem. My short films promoting ocean stewardship have been featured everywhere from film festivals to online forums. I’ve won numerous awards from festivals around the world: Ocean Geographic’s 2014 Picture of the Year: Master of Competition, Best Short Film at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monaco, and the Hero Award at the My Hero Film Festival are just a few of my accolades. The infectious passion of my team and myself have influenced people from all over the world to think about their actions regarding how they affect the ocean.
This winter my team and I are working on a documentary film entitled: Kohola. Kohola is the Hawaiian word for whale and come this December we are attempting to be the first people ever to film the birth of a North Pacific Humpback Whale. Right now, I am in pre-production. The filming will start this December and go until the end of May.
Being that the main subject of this film will be a protected species, I had to go through a very long application process to obtain a special permit that allows us to enter the water in close proximity to the whales enabling us to get the footage we need. This permit is the first permit issued for an educational/commercial film since they have been taken off of the endangered species list. Along with the permit comes the credibility of a federal branch of the United States government: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Over the next few months I will be gather as much funding as I can, getting all the logistics in order, and preparing my team for this incredibly hard task we're about to go up against.
I'll be introducing my team as we come closer to the first day of production and tell you what incredible skills they each bring to the table.
Follow us as we try to capture one of the most rare and sought after births in the entire animal kingdom.
Be Blue, Chris
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