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Q&A with Marine Biologist Meagan Jones

In Hawaii, a scientist studies whales and helps teach visitors to appreciate these aquatic mammals through the work of her nonprofit organization.

marine biologist Meagan Jones wearing sunglasses and headphones, image
Photo caption
Megan Jones sports headphones and sunglasses in her "office" on the Pacific.

 

Marine biologist Meagan Jones cofounded Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit that studies the creatures’ behavior and communication patterns, in 2001. The group celebrates the 10th anniversary of its free, annual Whale Tales event this Feb. 12–15 in Kapalua, on the island’s northwestern tip.

Q What draws you to whales?
A As a kid, I felt a kinship with them. Later, when I spent time in their natural environment—observed their interactions, witnessed their curiosity and complex communication patterns—I was inspired to learn more and protect them. I love introducing people to the world underneath the sea. One of my favorite things to do is drop a hydrophone into the water and put the headphones on someone who has never heard whale songs before. I have a camera ready to capture the awe on the person’s face.

Q Why should we care about whales?
A With oceans covering more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface and containing 97 percent of all the planet’s water, humans depend on the health of this ecosystem for our food, water, and air. I remember the first time my dad experienced a whale. It rolled over and, looking at us, slapped its pectoral fin on the water. To this day, my dad believes that the whale was communicating with him. Whales remind us that we’re not alone on this planet.

Q What’s the most interesting research the trust is doing?
A For the past 45 years, scientists have been trying to understand the song of humpbacks. What does the song mean? Why does it change from year to year and span entire ocean basins? How do whales communicate over such long distances? Our research probes these questions by looking at the function of the song from different perspectives.

Q Best spots on Maui for watching humpback whales?
A On the southwest side of the island, protected waters coupled with a high density of whales provide the perfect conditions for spotting whales during winter. Make sure you look for the blow [spout] or the splashes that erupt when a humpback leaps from the water.

Q Can you recommend a great place outside Hawaii to see humpbacks?
A Southeast Alaska is one of my favorites. In one feeding technique, a group uses bubbles to coalesce prey—usually a group of herring—into a tight ball. The whales burst from the water all at once with their mouths open. The sounds they make during these feedings create a haunting cacophony.

Photography courtesy of Meagan Jones

For great whale watching, check out Nine Places to See Whales and Whale Watching in the West.

This article was first published in Winter 2016. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.