Dolphin Research with Citizen Science

Have you ever been on a Trilogy sail, enjoying the ocean and island views, when a surprise encounter with dolphins occurs?

Sightings of marine mammals in the dolphin family, also known as toothed whales or “odonotocetes” officially, are one of our favorite parts of sailing around Maui Nui. The warm, clear, tropical waters around Hawai’i are rich in odontocete species diversity- there have been 18 species of odontocetes identified in Hawaiian waters! The most common species spotted around Maui are the Hawaiian spinner dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the pantropical spotted dolphin, the short finned pilot whale and the false killer whale.

spinner dolphins

spinner dolphins

Dolphin species have fascinating, complex social structures based on matrilineal relationships that ensure cooperative hunting, teaching/care for juveniles, and protection against predators. Dolphins work together to find and hunt fish, and even exhibit altruistic behavior, sometimes sharing fish with other pods and even other species. It is well known that dolphins’ brains are the second biggest in relation to body size, bested only by humans. Dolphins have adapted to life as a mammal in their ocean habitat in various divergent ways, most notably evolving the ability to echolocate




This sense allows a dolphin to receive a 3D image of the surrounding environment by transmitting sound waves that bounce off of objects around them. This sense is the biological inspiration for sonar technology. Dolphins also have a complex system of communication via clicks and whistles that is still poorly understood by scientists. It has been discovered that dolphins have a unique system of self-identification and identification of other individuals, even remembering the “names” of other dolphins over a term as long as 20 years.

Since we already cruise the waters of Maui Nui every day and have boats full of eagle eyed, inquisitive passengers scanning the water, it makes sense that Trilogy is now collaborating with a graduate student from the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology at UH Manoa to conduct opportunistic odontocete sightings research. What does this mean? Basically, when anyone on a Trilogy excursion spots a dolphin, the crew will identify it to the species level, record GPS, pod size, sea state information and take an ID photo if possible. When the trip is over, they send the collected data to Marian Howe, the HIMB graduate student who is working at Oceanwide Science Institute here on Maui while she does her thesis research. This data will be used to better understand species diversity and odontocete occurrence patterns.

Just passing through.... in an extremely RARE occurrence, a pod of dolphins swim right by Divemaster Matthew W. He's been diving for many years and this was a first, very special treat. . Disclaimer: Trilogy does not actively search for dolphins in order to swim or dive with them.

We’re thrilled to partner with this community based research effort and use citizen science to add to knowledge about marine mammals- and we’re excited that now, our passengers can be marine biologists for the day while also enjoying a sail with Trilogy.

We started out our data collection with a “bang” on the Fourth of July with a sighting of normally elusive, endangered false killer whales. Check out the amazing video that our crew captured!

Want to be a citizen scientist for the day? The Discover Lana’i trip has the longest channel crossing and therefore the best chance of coming across dolphins. However, any excursion on the water has the possibility of encountering dolphins and other marine mammals, so come join us and help us record sightings and add to scientists’ knowledge of these fascinating marine mammals.