Counting Whales

It is that time again! Time for Ocean Count 2012… A morning spent spotting and counting whales for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The sanctuary staff recruits teams to crew sites all around the islands. All together, 61 teams with over 950 volunteers observed whales from Kauai to Hawai’i today. Twenty one teams set up to cover the Big Island from South Point to Opolu Point. The procedure is to observe whales from 8am to noon, recording the behavior in half hour time slots. Every blow, dive, breach or other activity is recorded. The technique is to work in teams of two, one person spotting, binoculars in hand, the other writing as the whale activity is called out.

Counting Whales
Deb Cooper counting whales north of Kawaihae

A bluff overlooking Pelekane Bay has been our site for the last three years. Mile Marker 7 is a perfect place to observe whales. A bluff well above the water. A rocky knoll covered with lawn chairs, coolers, and well over twenty observers peering through binoculars.

This year was much like the last several years. We counted dozens upon dozens of whales from the MM7 site, while other sites around the island are lucky to see a handful. There are some sites that did not see a whale all day. We count as fast as we can write, activity everywhere.

At a busy site a single person can not watch everything. Our soundtrack is a steady patter of activity calls from the observers, with directions and distances… “Blow, two o’clock, inshore… blow, blow, blow, 11 o’clock, almost to the horizon, blow, dive, blow, blow, Breach!!”

Humpback Whale off Kawaihae
Humpback Whale from MM7 near Kawaihae

From the bluff there is a 180° view from the harbor at Kawaihae, miles up the coast towards Lapakahi. The site is 160′ above sea level, providing a view of over 15 miles out to sea. We could see whales in every direction, four or five groups at once. There were plenty of breaches, including a pair that breached together right in front of us. Not many tail slaps or fin slaps today, no spinner dolphins either.

Some of the best views of the day came when we saw a pair of large males chasing a mother and calf around. They charged along, swimming fast. The males right on top of each other, probably bumping each other underwater. They swept south a few hundred yards from shore, then back to the north just off the reef at the base of the bluff. Not sure if the mother and calf were enjoying the experience, probably not, it looked rather serious. But we got a great show as they raced back and forth. So did the divers aboard the Kohala Diver. The whales must have gone right over the dive party and right off the bow of the dive boat moored at the base of the bluff.

Humpback Whale off Kawaihae
Humpback Whale diving, from MM7 near Kawaihae

I took a few photos with the TV-76 set up as a spotting ‘scope. Not as exciting as the shots taken from the boat last summer in Alaska when we were far closer. When watching whales like this, I always wonder if I have crossed paths with the same whale at both ends of their migration. To think about the sheer distances these animals travel, swimming three thousand miles between feeding grounds in Alaska and breeding areas in the shelter of these islands. I gaze through the binoculars at a spectacle of nature and let the wonder entangle my thoughts.

Four hours of recording activity and we are done. With the Sun climbing high, it is getting hot out on this dry, dusty coastline. As noon approaches we are ready for the final time call. Time to write the last notes and hand in the tally sheets. Time to head for Kawaihae and a good lunch!

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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