Posted on: February 26, 2011

1,607 Humpback Whale Sightings Recorded During the 2011 Great Maui Whale Count

Volunteers and researchers tallied 1,607 sightings of humpback whales on Saturday, February 26 from their lookout posts along Maui’s shorelines during the Great Maui Whale Count, an annual event held by Pacific Whale Foundation. The counting took place between 8:30 am and 11:55 am.

“Sighting conditions today were fantastic, the best I recall in the last decade,” said Greg Kaufman, founder and president of Pacific Whale Foundation, and the site leader for the counting station located at the top of Pu’u Olai, the cinder cone located at Makena Beach State Park. “The seas were calm, the winds were was perfect.”

Volunteers Reed and Shelly Chin, who are visiting Maui from Las Vegas, were impressed with the number of whales they sighted today from the Pu’u Olai counting station. “We have watched whales in four different areas along the West Coast from boats,” said Reed. “We have never seen as many whales as we did today during the Great Whale Count. This was just terrific, our best whale watch experience. We are glad we participated. It gave us a great experience on our vacation and we were happy to help out.”

“The Great Maui Whale Count represents a long term snapshot view of whales that can be sighted nearshore during a morning at the peak of whale season,” says Kaufman. “Because we have conducted the count systematically at the same time each year, it provides a valuable look at Hawaii’s winter whale population; in general, we are seeing evidence of a growing number of whale sightings in recent years.”

“This correlates to research that shows the humpback whale population in the North Pacific increasing at a rate of 7-8% each year,” says Kaufman. “An estimated 20,000 humpback whales live in the North Pacific; about 60% of that population is believed to come to Hawaii each year. Large numbers of these whales are found off the coast of Maui, in the area bordered by the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Moloka’i and Lana’i.”

The whales come to Maui to mate, give birth and care for their young, and are known for their intriguing and acrobatic behaviors, which include breaching, tail slapping and singing underwater. Of today’s 12 counting stations in the Great Maui Whale Count, Kaufman’s group on Pu’u Olai recorded the most whale sightings. They tallied 311 sightings during the counting window.

"From Puu O’lai we could detect whales simply by seeing ripples in the water,” Kaufman noted. “There were no trade winds making viewing excellent.”

“The sightings we counted were limited to just three miles from shore, but we could see many large active pods all across the channel between Makena and Kahoolawe,” Kauifman reported. “We also observed two pods of spinner dolphins.”

The 12 counting stations were positioned along Maui’s south and western shores, in an area extending from Makena to Kapalua, and also at Hookipa Beach Park on Maui’s north shore. The count was conducted by 100 volunteers who worked alongside Pacific Whale Foundation researchers and staff.

Last year’s counters recorded 1,208 sightings. (The count took place a week later than usual, due to a tsunami warming on February 26 last year.) Today’s results represented a 33% increase over those from last year’s count. In 2009, 1,010 whale sightings were recorded. In 2008, 1,726 sightings were tallied on a day that presented ideal conditions (however an anomaly in one site’s counts may have led to a higher overall count). In 2007, counters at all of the sites tallied a total of 959 whale sightings. In 2006, there were 1,265 humpback whales counted. There were 649 humpback whale sightings recorded during the 2005 count. In 2004, rainy weather caused a disruption in the counting. In 2003, there were 815 sightings tallied. The counters in 2002 reported 673 sightings.

"There number of whales fluctuates from year to year based on the weather conditions and the number of whales in the area," said Kaufman. "The peak can shift two to three weeks annually and is dependent upon number of mature males and females in the area, along with changes in yearly birthing rates.”

Of today’s 1,607 sightings, 154 were calves, compared with the 149 calves sighted last year, an increase of 3.3%. Calves accounted for 9.6% of the sightings in 2011 versus 12.3% in 2010. “A high number of calves were seen in the area that we observed from Pu’u Olai; they were mostly milling about,” reported Kaufman. “Several mother/calf pods were seen resting within .5 mi of the shoreline, which is not unusual for this time of year.”

“Our research shows that as the calves mature, we start to see them head further offshore (greater than 3 miles) and the larger competition pods may be observed closer to shore as the season progresses,” he notes.

“About a half dozen whales were seen coming in from the south rounding La Perouse and heading northeast into Ma’alaea Bay,” said Kaufman. “Based on what I have observed on the water recently and from atop Pu’u Olai, it is clear we are entering into the prime or ‘peak’ portion of the whalewatch season; we expect whale sightings to build over the next few weeks into March.”

Today’s tallies showed there were 780 pods or groups of whales, with an average of 260 pods or groups sighted per hour, or approximately 21.7 pods or groups per hour at each of the counting stations. There were about 2.1 whales per pod.

The count follows a system established by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team in 1988, the year that the first Great Whale Count took place. Training at each site began at 8:00 am and the official counting took place from 8:30 am to 11:55 am. The counters worked in 20-minute intervals. During the first ten minutes of each interval, they scanned the area extending three miles out from their station, noting the numbers of pods, the numbers of whales in each pod, whether calves were present and the direction in which the animals were moving. They took compass bearings to note the location of the whales on a map. They also recorded data on sea state, percentage glare, wind speed and wind direction.

Immediately following this scan, the counters devoted five minutes to recording significant behaviors, such as breaches, pectoral fin slaps, tail slaps, and peduncle throws. The next five minutes were “rest time”—and then the scanning cycle was repeated throughout the morning. The same cycles were followed at each of the counting sites. The count is limited to within three miles of shore, because the accuracy of determining numbers in each pod or group and the sightability of calves diminishes dramatically beyond that point.

“Over the years, we have consistently followed this systematic counting method,” says Kaufman. “This lets us compare results from year to year.”

“Please note that we are not recording the number of whales out there, but the number of whales viewed within each counting interval and tallying that total,” says Kaufman. “By spacing the counting stations three miles apart, we don’t overlap the areas in which we count during our whale scan windows.”

Data from The Great Whale Count is compiled and evaluated by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team and supplements results from Pacific Whale Foundation’s field studies.

In addition to launching the Great Whale Count on Maui, Pacific Whale Foundation helped introduce it to neighbor islands. In 1996, Pacific Whale Foundation started the Great Whale Count on Oahu, working in partnership with the then newly created Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In 1998, the sanctuary changed the name to ‘Ocean Count’ to encompass other marine wildlife, and continues to run their counts independently.

The Great Whale Count is part of the Maui Whale Festival, a series of whale-related events taking place from November through Mid-May. The festival continues with a free talk on Thursday, March 17 by Pacific Whale Foundation researchers Amanda Hutsel and Annie Macie, titled “On the Trail of the Whales in Australia.” Featuring slides and video, the talk will recount their experiences from more than six months in the field in 2009 and 2010 studying humpback whales along Australia’s eastern seaboard, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands, Hervey Bay and the former whaling town of Eden. The talk takes place from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm. It is free and open to all at Pacific Whale Foundation’s Discovery Center, downstairs at the Harbor Shops at Ma’alaea (next door to Maui Ocean Center). For information, call (808) 249-8811 ext. 1.

For more information about other Maui Whale Festival events, please call Pacific Whale Foundation at (808) 249-8811 or visit or