Spouts, slaps, breaches and dives

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
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By Melora Purell | Special to NHN

At 8 a.m., 40 chairs were lined up along the edge of the lawn of the headquarters of the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, facing Kawaihae Bay. Occupying the chairs were volunteers with binoculars and clipboards, participating in the first of three Sanctuary Ocean Counts for 2012. Although the volunteers were physically present on land, their attention was riveted miles out to sea, to the humpback whales that were making their presence known by spouts of mist, slaps and lunges out of the water.

The Sanctuary Ocean Count is an annual opportunity for volunteers to get involved in caring for and learning about the ocean environment, said Christine Brammer, communications coordinator for the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was created in 1992 by an act of Congress in order to protect the winter habitat for humpback whales.

During the summer, the whales are in polar waters in the north Pacific, feeding on plankton, storing energy in the form of blubber. They migrate in the fall to warmer seas off of Mexico and the Hawaiian Islands to give birth and breed. Their movements reverse in springtime, when they migrate north, accompanied by their new calves, she said.

The whale counts take place at 60 sites on Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii island. The Puukohola site is one of 22 on Hawaii Island, and the most popular, Brammer said.

For four hours in the morning on the last Saturday of January, February and March, volunteers record both whale behavior and whale numbers. According to data tables on the Sanctuary website, in 2011 the Puukohola site volunteers spotted an average of six adults and three calves during a 30-minute data collection session. The data is used to corroborate population estimates from researchers working with the whales, Brammer said, as well as validate overall trends in whale numbers.

“We are seeing an average of 7 percent increase in humpback whale population per year,” Brammer said.

Amy Cody, one of two coordinators for the Puukohola site, has been involved in the whale counts for nine years. She drives from Paauilo to organize the event, train volunteers and oversee the data collection.

“I do this because I really like whales, and if you like something and want to protect it, you need to get involved,” Cody said.

Site co-coordinator Patty Dilworth of South Kohala said the Sanctuary provides a half-day training for site coordinators.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the volunteer group, the most exciting part of the whale count was observing whale behavior. Choruses of “Whoo-hoo! Breach at eleven o’clock,” coincided with a massive splash directly offshore.

Numbers of individual spouts, slaps, breaches and dives were recorded on printed data sheets by the volunteers, along with an estimate of the total number of adults and calves associated with the behavior, Cody said.

“Statistically, it all averages out,” said longtime volunteer Bruce Miller of South Kohala. “Some people see too many, and some people see too few.”

In between the official whale count events, Eileen Hartwings of Kapaau practices her whale watch skills with a friend on their own along the North Kohala Coast.

“A full breach with the sun going down — that’s the best,” she said.

Glen Fujinaga and Lori Ellison of Keaau are involved in wildlife conservation both on the land and in the ocean. They are active volunteers at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, as well as participating in the whale count for the second time.

“We love wildlife and nature,” Ellison said.

“You feel like you are making a difference when you get involved in something bigger than yourself,” Fujinaga added.

First-time Waimea volunteer Diane Woods had wanted to participate in the whale count since she moved to the Big Island in 2002. Part of the excitement of the event is hanging around with other people with similar interests, she said. Her most memorable moment of the day? In the first hour and half, she saw a competitive pod of adults perform at least 20 breaches, one after the other.

Ranger Greg Cunningham of the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site has been attending the whale counts for the past four years. He said the presence of humpback whales in Hawaii is a fairly modern trend. Although one translation of “puu kohola” is “hill of the whale,” there is almost nothing in Hawaiian oral tradition about humpback whales. Researchers propose that migration patterns may have changed in recent times, bringing the whales across the ocean from their normal wintering grounds in Mexico, he said.

Populations of humpback whales in Hawaii are increasing, but that is not the case with whales elsewhere in the world, Brammer said. There is a need to spread awareness internationally, and educate the public about the threats to whales, she added. All the key threats are from humans, including entanglement with fishing gear, vessel collisions, acoustic disturbance and marine debris. The whale count is a snapshot of what is happening with the humpback whales at this time of year, but the public awareness generated by the event can help all marine species throughout the year, she added.

The next 2012 Sanctuary Ocean Counts are Feb. 25 and March 31. To sign up as a volunteer at Puukohola or another location, visit sanctuaryoceancount.org. Although it is best to sign up ahead of time, the site coordinators are eager to recruit volunteers.

“We welcome newcomers, and wouldn’t turn anybody away,” Cody said.