Armed with binoculars and stationed at various sites overlooking the ocean, humpback whale aficionados will again spend three Saturdays searching for a burst of mist in the air, an arch, pectoral fin slapping, a spy hop or breach.
Every sighting recorded by these dedicated volunteers and marine experts becomes a helpful statistic for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Count, a yearly shore-based census that provides snapshot data on whale population and distribution throughout Hawaii. It also provides insight on whale behavior, particularly how these gentle giants use the inshore waters on a typical peak season day, said Christine Brammer, Ocean Count project manager.
As many as 12,000 of humpback whales are estimated to come to Hawaii annually, traveling a distance of about 2,500 to 3,000 miles from their summer feeding areas near Alaska. Hawaii’s pristine marine environment is considered to be one of the most important breeding, calving and nursing grounds for humpback whales in the North Pacific. Whale season generally runs from November through May, with the greatest number of sightings happening from January to March, which is also when the sanctuary holds its Ocean Count events, Brammer said.
The sanctuary is currently looking for volunteers for this year’s Ocean Count events, occurring Jan. 26, Feb. 23 and March 30. People of all ages are welcome, but a parent or guardian must accompany and supervise children under age 16, Brammer said.
The goal of the Ocean Count is to record the number of humpback whales sighted in a four-hour period from various shore sites statewide, including Hookena Beach Park, Honaunau Lookout, Keahole Point, Keauhou Scenic Lookout and Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Not only does this data provide a better understanding of the population density, it also helps the sanctuary distinguish trends, Brammer said.
In 1993, it was estimated 6,000 whales existed in the North Pacific, of which 4,000 came to Hawaii. Scientific studies have shown the population in Hawaii is increasing at an annual rate of about 7 percent. Nevertheless, “humpback whale populations are still relatively unknown,” Brammer said.
The Ocean Count, launched in 1996, does not claim to provide scientifically accurate results. However, it does provide a relative approximation of humpback whale numbers and distribution patterns locally over the years. It also serves as a tool to supplement scientific information and other research activities, Brammer said.
One finding that has come out of the Ocean Count further proved whales are utilizing other parts of the ocean, Brammer said. When the population was lower, whales were commonly sighted in the waters off Maui and North Kona. Today, the whales have expanded beyond those areas, including in Hilo Bay, where no whales were sighted for over a decade, she said.
Brammer thinks the Ocean Count, which was named the 2012 Take Pride in America Outstanding Volunteer Program, also helps raise awareness about this endangered species, which is still threatened by entanglement and vessel collision. Over the past 17 years, more than 20,000 volunteers have contributed more than 100,000 hours of in-kind support. The Ocean Count events also tend to result in a greater level of commitment to protecting the marine environment, she added.
The sanctuary recommends registering early because some sites fill up quickly. To volunteer or for more information, call 1-888-55-WHALE ext. 253. Also, visit http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/involved/ocvolunteer.html.