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Volunteers conclude count of humpack whales in Hawaii waters

  • COURTESY NOAA

    This was the first year that the Sanctuary Ocean Count and Great Whale Count on Maui took place on the same days to better coordinate data between the isles. The Great Whale Count also expanded from one to three months this year.

The annual Sanctuary Ocean Count and Great Whale Count conducted by volunteers on the last Saturday of first three months of the year concluded, with volunteers counting more than 100 humpback whales during peak sighting periods on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island.

On Saturday, volunteers tallied 73 humpback whale sightings on Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai from 9 to 9:15, the most of any time period throughout the day. On Maui, Great Whale Count volunteers counted 36 whales from 10 to 10:15 a.m. and from 10:30 to 10:45 a.m.

Combined, the peak whale sighting periods resulted in a total of 109 whales from participating islands, which included data from 54 sites across all main isles.

This was the first year that the Sanctuary Ocean Count and Great Whale Count on Maui took place on the same days to better coordinate data between the isles. The Great Whale Count also expanded from one to three months this year.

In March, the weather was sunny, with light trade winds at nearly all sites throughout the main Hawaiian isles, offering very good whale viewing conditions. Volunteers spotted a few other animals during the count, including sea turtles, spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals, flying fish and an array of sea birds.

During the Ocean Count, volunteers tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior, including whether there was a breach, fin or tail slap or lengthy dive, during the survey from the shorelines of Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii islands. The Ocean Count is supported by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

The annual Great Whale Count by Pacific Whale Foundation offers volunteers an opportunity to be citizen scientists, and to count whales from 12 survey sites along the Maui shoreline.

While long-term, historical data would provide a more comprehensive picture, and scientists say it is too early to draw any conclusions, the volunteer whale counts offer a snapshot of whale activity in Hawaii.

Initial data from January, February and March this year show a slight uptick in sightings of humpback whales compared to last year, particularly in the latter two months.

In January, whale sightings were much lower on Oahu and Hawaii island compared to last year. In February, however, more whales seemed to arrive.

Volunteers on Oahu counted an average of six whales every 15 minutes in February this year compared to three last February. On Kauai, volunteers counted an average of five whales every 15 minutes this year compared to two last February. On Hawaii island, volunteers counted five whales every 15 minutes this year compared to two last February.

In March, average counts per 15-minutes were also slightly higher than the same month last year, though they had diminished by then to an average of one whale or less every 15 minutes on Hawaii island.

On Maui, a total of 690 humpback whales were sighted at this year’s count, with 85, or 12.3 percent, being calves. Volunteers on the Valley isle counted a total of 219 whales throughout the day on Saturday.

Data gathered from Sanctuary Ocean Count and Great Whale Count sightings by site location are available at oceancount.org/resources and mauiwhalefestival.org/greatwhalecount.

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