Volunteers Can Help Count Humpback Whales At Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Volunteers observing a whale breaching at a previous year's count. Photo by National Marine Sanctuaries and Bruce Parsil.

Visitors and residents are drawn to Hawaii for many reasons, but the chance to see and help count humpback whales may not be one that comes immediately to mind. That connection may seem even more unusual at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, which is best-known for dramatic eruptions, active lava flows and vast calderas rising thousands of feet above sea level.

This park also includes miles of rugged Pacific Ocean shoreline, and on the last Saturdays in January, February and March, volunteers are encouraged to help in an annual project in the park and other sites around the islands to monitor and count humpback whales.

As many as 10,000 whales make an annual migration between their summer homes in Alaskan waters and more temperate winter climes around Hawaii. The shallow warm waters surrounding the islands constitute one of the world's most important humpback whale habitats.

Key areas for whales around the islands are included in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, which is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State of Hawai`i. This is the only place in U.S. coastal waters where humpbacks reproduce.

Counts Held on the Last Saturdays in January, February and March

Relatively little is known about humpback whale populations, and as part of an effort to gain information about relative humpback numbers and distribution patterns, the Sanctuary sponsors community events such as the annual Sanctuary Ocean Count. For 2014, the counts will take place on three Saturday mornings (January 25, February 22, and March 29), from 8 a.m. to 12 noon.

What kind of information is gained from this effort using volunteer spotters?

After a brief training session, the observers record the both numbers of adults and calves and the observed behavior of the whales, such as breaching and fluke-up dives, during short blocks of time. Scheduling the counts at the same locations and similar dates and times each year allows the gathering of relative numbers for each site, which can then be compared from year to year.

According to a Sanctuary spokesperson, "Although the census does not claim to provide scientifically accurate results, it serves as a tool to supplement scientific information gathered from other research activities. The count also provides some information on how whales use in-shore waters on an average peak season day. The Sanctuary Ocean Count serves to promote public awareness about humpback whales, the Sanctuary, and shore-based whale watching opportunities."

Number of Volunteers Has Grown Steadily

The count began in February 1996 on O'ahu, with approximately 150 volunteers. The project has now expanded to 60 sites on four islands, with an enlistment of over 2,000 volunteers in recent years. The island of Hawaii hosts 21 sites, including Ka'ena Point, located at the end of Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

Volunteers need to register in advance, and can do so on-line at this link. Once you're signed up, you'll be provided details, including what to bring and when and where to meet. Once you've checked the information on the website, if you still have questions, you can call the Ocean Count Hotline at 808-268-3087.

The Sanctuary website includes some enthusiastic testimonials from volunteers who participated in previous years. One couple noted, "We were in Hawaii on vacation and thought the count would be fun to do, worthwhile, and not something we could do at home. All of our expectations were more than fully met!"

Looking for more information? The following video offers additional details about the project and interviews with some of the volunteers from previous years.