VESSEL REVIEW | Kaiao – Wildlife observation boat for Hawaii-based research organisation

Photo: Brix Marine
Photo: Brix Marine

Maui-based marine research non-profit Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) recently began operating a custom-built research vessel for the study of whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters. The vessel is named Kaiao after the Hawaiian indigenous translation of the phrase "to enlighten." The name was selected in line with PWF's intention to integrate Hawaiian culture into its research efforts.

<em>Photo: Brix Marine</em>
Photo: Brix Marine

"We required a custom-built vessel that was also stable and manoeuvrable," PWF told Baird Maritime. "We needed a stable platform that could be used to survey understudies areas offshore, which often requires us to return to port in rough sea conditions. However, the platform still needed to be small enough to allow us to manoeuvre around whales and dolphins and carry out our research."

<em>Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation</em>
Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation

The owner also required custom-built features that would be specific to research needs. The best option for this type of vessel was therefore a 30- by 11-foot (9.1- by 3.35-metre) aluminium catamaran, with everything above the deck tailored to fit research needs.

Kaiao will operate in waters within 40 nautical miles of the four islands of Hawaii's Maui Nui region. The vessel will carry out 60 to 80 days of research surveys each year, focusing on humpback whales from January to March and resident dolphins for the rest of the year. Each trip will have a crew of six to eight researchers, each of whom has a specific role for scientific data collection.

"With the ability to handle larger seas and rough conditions, this vessel will be the first to conduct regular surveys for whales and dolphins on the windward side of Maui Nui, which can be unsafe for smaller research vessels to navigate."

The vessel is fitted with a viewing platform on top of the main helm station to allow research crew to stand eight feet (2.4 metres) above the waterline. This allows them to see dolphins and whales further away and improves the helm operator's ability to track the animals for close approaches. The platform also increases the range of the tracking antennae used by the crew to find any scientific instruments that have fallen off an animal and need to be retrieved. The vessel also has a drone launching/landing platform at the stern, which provides a dedicated space away from crew and is free of obstacles.

<em>Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS/MMPA Research Permit #21321)</em>
Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS/MMPA Research Permit #21321)

An elevated bow pulpit extends three feet (0.91 metres) above the water to enable the research crew to get closer to surfacing animals to attach suction cup tags. The pulpit will also enable the crew to get above the water to help scan for whales and dolphins as well as to take photographs of the animals for photo-identification.

"There is an enclosed workstation, which we use for processing biological samples collected from whales and dolphins, as well as programing scientific instruments," PWF told Baird Maritime. "The vessel has a built-in inverter and battery pack, which supplies power to electrical outlets throughout the boat for use by scientific instruments. The boat also has an autopilot, which we use to ensure we travel in a straight line during line-transect surveys for estimating the size of whale and dolphin populations."

<em>Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation</em>
Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation

The electronics also include a Garmin radar while propulsive power is supplied by two Suzuki outboards mounted on either side of the stern drone launching/landing platform.

The vessel is also equipped with an Optimus 360 joystick to aid in fine scale movements. The crew will use the joystick to retrieve sampling equipment that has fallen off a whale and is floating, such as suction-cup tags. It also allows the crew to maintain the last known position of whales they are observing by holding both the boat heading and position.

<em>Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation</em>
Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation
Type of vessel:Research vessel
Owner:Pacific Whale Foundation, USA
Hull construction material:Aluminium
Length overall:30 feet (9.1 metres)
Beam:11 feet (3.35 metres)
Main engines:2 x Suzuki outboards
Other equipment installed:Viewing platform; drone launching/landing platform; bow pulpit
Operational area:Hawaii, USA

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