MA’ALAEA, Maui, Hawaii – Over 100 volunteers worked with Pacific Whale Foundation researchers to record 1,331 humpback whale sightings during the annual Great Whale Count off Maui.
This year’s count had more sightings than the 2013 count, during which 1,126 whales were recorded.
“The perfect sea surface conditions provided excellent sighting conditions,” said Greg Kaufman, Executive Director of Pacific Whale Foundation and leader of a group counting whales at Pu’u Olai, the hill near Makena Beach State Park.
In contrast, last year’s count had gusty trade winds at a number of sites, which kicked up the sea and made it harder to view whales.
“The Great Whale Count, conducted since 1991, demonstrates the power of citizen science, with ordinary citizens receiving training in data collection and research, and assisting in gathering sound data for science,” says Kaufman. “This event empowers the public to engage in research and ultimately to have increased awareness and equity in efforts to protect whales.”
“This year’s count went flawlessly and I was very pleased with the efforts of our site leaders and volunteers,” said Stephanie Currie, Pacific Whale Foundation research biologist and coordinator of the 2014 Great Whale Count. “The weather conditions were calm and sunny at all sites, and the volunteers were eager and enthusiastic, many having practiced spotting whales in the weeks leading up to the count.”
“There was a mix of veteran Great Whale Count volunteers and first-timers, and all participants had a wonderful time,” Currie noted. “”Seventeen-year-old Emily Hayes, who plans to study marine biology when she starts college next year, observed the Count on Pu’u Olai. She was excited to meet Greg Kaufman and learn firsthand about whale research.”
Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez, Senior Research Scientist at Pacific Whale Foundation led a group of counters at Kihei Surfside. “It is fantastic to see the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers, whether it is their first time or they have been participating for years,” she noted.
“We saw more whales this year at Kihei Surfside, including calves, with a 47% increase from last year’s total,” said Dr. Martinez. “One of the mothers sighted today did 39 tail slaps in a row within one mile from the shore; a shame since it was not during our behavior scan.”
“We did finish with a nice finale though, with a whale breaching several times in a row and this time it counted,” she said.
Observers stationed in Kapalua were treated to the sight of a mother and calf about 50 meters offshore for most of the morning. In Ma’alaea Harbor, volunteers saw a mother and calf breach 20 times in a row. A pod of about 40 spinner dolphins was sighted off Makena.
“On a different note, we also witnessed up to a dozen watercraft watching a pod at one point, sometimes closer than 100 yards,” said Dr. Martinez. She urges boaters and all water users to check out the “Be Whale Aware” information posted by Pacific Whale Foundation online at http://www.pacificwhale.org/BWA.
“We continue to see growth in the numbers of non-motorized watercraft off Maui in areas where there are whales,” said Kaufman. “Education is important so that all watercraft operators understand how to watch whales responsibly.”
A Consistent Protocol From Year to Year
The volunteers and researchers worked from 12 locations on Maui’s coastline, using a protocol that was first established by Pacific Whale Foundation in 1988 to gather data on humpback whales in the area. Using a consistent protocol allows Pacific Whale Foundation researchers to compare data from year to year and detect trends over time.
The 12 counting stations are positioned along Maui’s south and western shores, in an area extending from Makena to Kapalua. The sites include the Marriott in Ka’anapali, S-Turns in Kahana, 505 Front Street and La’uniupoko in Lahaina, Pacific Whale Foundation’s office and Papawai Point in Ma’alaea, Kihei Surfside near Kamaole III Beach Park and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Offices in Kihei, Polo Beach in Wailea, Pu’u Olai in Makena. The last site is at Ho’okipa Beach Park on Maui’s north shore.
Training at each site began at 8:00 am, with official counting from 8:30 am to 11:55 am. Observers at all sites worked in concurrent 20-minute intervals. During the first 10 minutes, they scanned within three nautical miles from their stations as the accuracy of determining numbers in each pod and the sightability of calves diminishes dramatically beyond that point.
During each scan, number of pods, individuals in each group, and presence of calves were recorded. Distance and compass bearing to each pod were plotted on a map. Environmental conditions were also recorded including sea state, glare percentage, as well as wind speed and direction.
Immediately following this scan, observers devoted five minutes to recording conspicuous behaviors, such as breaches, pectoral fin slaps, tail slaps, and peduncle throws. The remaining five minutes were “rest time”—and then the scanning cycle was repeated throughout the morning.
“Please note that we are not recording the number of whales out there, but a proportion of the whales off Maui given that we restrict our observations to within three nautical miles. In addition, we space our stations three miles apart, so we do not overlap the areas in which we conduct our whale scan windows,” said Kaufman.
More Calves Than Last Year
Kaufman pointed out that there were more calves recorded this year than last year (155 calves or 9% of all sightings compared to 83 calves or 7.6% of all sightings last year.)
“Launiopoko and the central Kihei sites had the highest percentage of calves, which indicate that it is a strong calving season with mothers and calves still in their preferred resting areas,” noted Kaufman. “I’d say we’re still at peak season here on Maui.”
2014 is also one of the peak years in the history of the Great Whale Count.
“Our data projected 2014 to be one of our peak years in the whale count, based on what appears to be a cycle in which the population shows pulses every four years,” he said. “This is likely a result of mature females being in sync on their calving cycles coupled with the general overall rate of whale population increase at the rate of 5-7% per year.”
“Our prediction proved correct with 2014 being the best count in four years,” Kaufman noted.
What is most important to Kaufman is the overall upward trend in the number of whales sighted since 1995.
“We are pleased that our Great Whale Count data correlate with other scientific studies, indicating a steadily increase of the population of North Pacific humpback whales,” he said. “It is estimated that there are now 23,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific with about 60% (approximately 12,000 to 14,000) coming to Hawaii over the entire season. Large numbers of these whales are found off the coast of Maui, in the area bordered by the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Moloka’i, and Lana’i.”
Kaufman’s site at Pu’u Olai recorded the largest number of whale sightings, with 214 whales, including 24 calves. The next best site was McGregor Point, with 168 whales counted (36 calves). La’uniupoko Park had the third highest count, with 153 animals (25 calves).
Volunteers were invited to a presentation at Pacific Whale Foundation’s Discovery Center, where the research team presented the results from the count.
Data from The Great Whale Count are compiled and evaluated by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team and supplement field studies. Previous results are published in the peer-reviewed journal Pacific Conservation Biology in an article entitled “Predicting trends in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) abundance using citizen-science.”
Pacific Whale Foundation helped introduce the Great Whale Count to neighboring islands. In 1996, it was started on Oahu, in partnership with the then newly created Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In 1998, the Sanctuary changed the name to “Ocean Count” to encompass other marine wildlife, and continues to run counts independently.
Pacific Whale Foundation is a nonprofit organization based on Maui dedicated to protecting whales and our oceans through science and advocacy. To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation, please visit www.pacificwhale.org.
The Great Whale Count is part of the Maui Whale Festival, a series of whale-related events taking place from late January through March. The festival continues with Evening with the Experts, two evenings of free presentations about whales, to be held on March 13 and 14 at the Westin Maui Resort in Ka’anapali.
On Thursday, March 13, Manny Oteyza, Producer of the movie Blackfish, will present a free screening of this 90-minute documentary and a presentation about creating the film. The movie, reportedly under consideration for an Oscar nomination documents the circumstances leading to the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a reknowned SeaWorld trainer who was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca. This film provides a compelling look at the cruelty of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, and has been instrumental in educating millions of people worldwide about the dark side of using these majestic marine mammals for human entertainment.
On Friday, March 14, the focus will be on “Heroes in Whale Research,” spotlighting female scientists as role models. Using engaging photos and video, Elsa Cabrera will present her work studying and protecting blue whales in Chile. Dr. Cristina Castro will discuss her efforts to study and protect humpback whales and other marine mammals off the coast of Ecuador. Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez will describe Pacific Whale Foundation’s work with humpback whales off Maui.
Admission is free; reservations for seating are strongly recommended.