984 humpback whales sighted during
Great Whale Count 2017
Over 100 citizen scientists joined Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) researchers in the Great Whale Count 2017 on Saturday, February 25 to record whale sightings from Maui's shoreline. They recorded a total of 984 humpback whales, including 544 pods (or groups of whales) and 88 calves.
This year's count had 252 more whale sightings than the 732 recorded in 2016, of which 83 were calves. "Overall we are encouraged and excited by the number of humpback whales sighted over the past 20 years," said PWF Founder and Executive Director, Greg Kaufman. "The results this year suggest we are trending towards Great Whale Count 2011-2015 levels, where over 1,000 animals were sighted."
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 migration season. Large numbers of these whales are found in waters bordered by the islands of Maui, Kaho'olawe, Moloka'i and Lana'i.
"By taking a snapshot every year using the same criteria and data-collection methods, we are building a comprehensive picture of humpback whale populations," said Kaufman. "Pacific Whale Foundation is proud to have spearheaded this effort on Maui for 29 years and counting. The Great Whale Count demonstrates the power of citizen-science to increase public awareness and commitment to protecting whales and their ocean habitat."
Kaufman was the site leader at Pu'u Olai in Makena which reported the highest number of whales at 303, followed by Polo Beach in Wailea with 153 and Papawai/McGregor Point with 108 sightings. Makena also recorded the highest number of calves at any site, with 36 sightings. The Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center site reported the highest proportion of calves (23%), followed by Makena (12%) and Wailea (8%). There was a lower proportion of calves recorded this year (9%) compared to last year (11%).
Surface activity varied across the island, with the highest number of conspicuous behaviors recorded at Pohaku Park in Kahana (159 surface active behaviors). Site leader Jamie Hawley reported seeing three different competition pods displaying a number of surface active behaviors, including breaches, pec slaps, and tail slaps. Polo Beach in Wailea had the second highest occurrence of conspicuous behaviors with 72 recorded throughout the morning.
There were other notable sightings during the Great Whale Count, including a pod of over 100 spinner dolphins spotted at the Kapalua site. At Papawai/McGregor Point, a humpback whale mother with her calf swam within 300 yards of shore. At Pu'u Olai, 30% of the sightings were animals entering Maui County waters from the south, including mothers with newborn calves, lone whales, and competition pods.
"The whales were fairly active with multiple breaches, peduncle throws, head slaps, tail slaps and pec slaps observed," said Kaufman. "The broad array of all age-class sightings leads me to believe we are nearing the peak of the whale season."
The day's overcast skies and light winds provided excellent spotting conditions. "No matter the weather, the Great Whale Count is always fun and educational for everyone who participates,” said PWF Research Assistant, Jessica McCordic. "It's also great to see so many first-time counters working alongside our veteran volunteers who have been participating in the event for years." Gary Weber has been a Great Whale Count volunteer since 1995. "I love helping out the researchers," said Weber. "Plus, you get to be around all these different people who also love whales."
The 12 sites for the Great Whale Count shore-based scans are: Ka'anapali, Kahana, Lahaina, La'uniupoko, Ma'alaea, Papawai/McGregor Point, North Kihei, South Kihei, Wailea, Makena, and Ho'okipa. At each site, trained volunteers record the number of pods, individuals in each group, and presence of calves visible within three nautical miles from their stations.
Environmental conditions are also recorded including sea state, glare percentage, wind speed and direction. Immediately following the scan, observers devote five minutes to recording conspicuous behaviors, such as breaches, pectoral fin slaps, tail slaps, head slaps, and peduncle throws. This scanning cycle is repeated throughout the morning. Each location has the same number of observers each year, to maintain a standardized long-term dataset.
Pacific Whale Foundation's Be Whale Aware Guidelines also promotes responsible whalewatching. During this year's Great Whale Count, a few recreational vessels and a large number of kayakers were observed intentionally approaching whales well within the federal regulations limit of 100 yards. A fair number of commercial and recreational vessels were also observed at estimated speeds in excess of 20 knots. All ocean users are reminded to remain 100 yards away from whales. In addition, all vessels are advised to reduce their speeds to 12 knots or less during peak whale season (January to March).
The Great Whale Count on Maui is conducted by Pacific Whale Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting whales and our oceans through science and advocacy. Results from the Great Whale Count are revealed on a VIP Whalewatch led by Greg Kaufman and members of the PWF Research Team.