For Humpback Whales in Sanctuaries, Public Involvement Counts

Rebecca Wilken

April 2017

whale breaching
A humpback whale breaches in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA, under NOAA Fisheries permit #872-1438

The humpback whale has long been a symbol of strength and connectedness. It is fitting, then, that an exciting project developed by Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary connects scientists and the public. The project, called the Sanctuary Ocean Count, offers community members an incredible opportunity to observe and assist in monitoring humpback whale populations from the Hawaiian shore.

This year alone, 1,500 participants assisted in counting humpback whales in sanctuary waters, and spoke with more than 1,700 passersby about the project. In sum, volunteers contributed more than 6,000 hours toward the project!

participant's view from shore of the ocean
A participant's view from the Sanctuary Ocean Count at Diamond Head, 2015. Photo: Nicole Fisher

The Sanctuary Ocean Count hosts humpback whale population count events on the last Saturday of every January, February, and March. The timing of these counts corresponds to peak whale season in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In this critical time, humpback whales return to coastal waters throughout the Hawaiian Islands to mate, calve, and nurse their young.

Though it is difficult to establish a total number of whales sighted across the Ocean Count period -- since some sightings may be of the same whales -- volunteers at around 75 percent of participating sites across O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i spotted whales in January 2017. In February, folks at nearly 95 percent of active sites spotted humpback whales in the sanctuary! And in March, participants at approximately 75 percent of active sites, again, were able to spot whales. On average, participants saw between two and four whales per 15 minutes they participated.

family sitting on the durning the sanctuary ocean count
The Sanctuary Ocean Count is a great volunteer opportunity for the whole family! Photo: Alicia Piavis, 2016 Count

In the 1960s, at a time when threats from shipping and commercial whaling were steep, less than an estimated 5,000 humpback whales inhabited the ocean. With an international agreement to end the hunting of humpback whales in 1966 and the added protection offered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and Endangered Species Act in 1973, the North Pacific humpback whale population is now thought to number near 20,000 individuals.

Of those 20,000, an estimated 12,000 individuals visit Hawai‘i. These numbers reflect a tremendous recovery of North Pacific humpback whale populations over time. As Cindy Among-Serrao, Sanctuary Ocean Count project coordinator for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, emphasizes, "Hawai‘i's humpback whales are truly a great success story."

In fact, in 2016 NOAA Fisheries announced that nine out of 14 global humpback population segments no longer warrant listing as endangered species -- including the segment that visits Hawai‘i. (These populations are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)  "Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and its Sanctuary Ocean Counts are more important now than ever in order to monitor and ensure that their numbers are solid and continue to grow," Among-Serrao says.

Humpback whale and calf
Humpback whales visit Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary each year from December through May to mate, calve, and nurse their young, making them native-born in Hawaiʻi. Ed Lyman/NOAA, under NOAA permit #14682

The Sanctuary Ocean Count got its start in 1996 as a citizen science project promoting shore-based whale watching and aiming to better understand humpback whales' use of nearshore areas. The count uses crowdsourcing techniques to invite the American public to take part in addressing important scientific and societal questions. Garnering the support of about 150 volunteers in its first year, the Sanctuary Ocean Count has since grown tremendously to involve thousands of participants each year. Some folks even travel from other countries to participate!

Since its establishment in the late 1990s, the Sanctuary Ocean Count has been "helpful in providing a snapshot of the frequency of whale sightings," says Among-Serrao. Plus, counts "have occasionally signaled or confirmed trends in whale sightings reported from other sources in Hawai‘i and from other breeding areas."

And those aren't the project's only benefit! Participating gives members of the public an incredible opportunity to learn about humpback whales, observe whale behavior, and gain information about current threats humpbacks face including ship strikes, entanglement, and  ocean noise.

Ipolani Salado, site leader at Turtle Bay, says that what she enjoys most about the count is "meeting new people around the world with the same passion as myself." She and her boyfriend have served as site leader for two years, bringing family, friends, and newcomers together to participate in the event and share their appreciation for this magnificent species.

Paul Hasley is a fellow site leader at Lanai Lookout, and describes the energy in the air at the counts: "You never know what or when you will be entertained by the humpback whales. Last month, we had a calf that breached 32 times within 30 minutes -- and within a couple hundred yards. The volunteers were all excited and had smiles on their faces."

woman using binoculars to look out to sea

Image: Participants in the Sanctuary Ocean Count help catalogue humpback whale behaviors like breaching and diving throughout the peak season. Cindy Among-Serrao/NOAA

So public participation in the sciences sounds like a whale of a good time. But how does it actually work? This year, more than 60 sites across four Hawaiian islands participated in the count. Participants gather at their respective sites early in the morning, collecting data from 8:00a.m. to 12:15 p.m. What could be better than a morning watching humpback whales from the Hawaiian coastline, gazing out to sea? Equipped with a data sheet and collection instructions from support staff, participants record whale sightings, surface behaviors, and visibility every 15 minutes throughout the collection window. Check out a sample collection sheet here.

At the end of the collection period participants hand in their sheets and walk away having contributed to an important scientific monitoring effort. Scientists can then aggregate and enter data from public participants to help track humpback populations in their breeding grounds over time. To keep the public in the know and provide information about scientific findings, annual reports for the count are later made publicly accessible online. You can check out full copies of the preliminary 2017 reports here.

Sanctuary Ocean Count Participants on the lookout for whales
Sanctuary Ocean Count Participants watch for whales from the shore, Oahu 2017. Photo: Cindy Among-Serrao/NOAA

Though this year's counts have come to a close as the humpback whales are beginning their travels north to feeding grounds off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, and Russia, you can catch them on their return to Hawaiʻi next December!

Interested in volunteering for next year's count? Keep your eye out for information about sign up dates and events on the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary website. Registration typically begins in mid-December. We'd love to see you on Hawai‘i's shores next season.

Rebecca Wilken is a social media intern for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.