Posted on: February 28, 2016

732 humpback whales sighted during Great Whale Count 2016

Over 100 citizen scientists worked with Pacific Whale Foundation researchers on Saturday, February 27, 2016 during the Great Whale Count. They recorded a total of 732 humpback whale sightings off the coast of Maui, including 83 calves. This year's count had significantly fewer sightings than the 2015 count, which recorded 1,488 whales (99 of which were calves).

Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) researchers speculate that the strong El Nino may be having an effect on whale migration, noting the whales began arriving later this year than in the past few years, and it is likely that the peak of the season has yet to occur. Research has shown that the peak occurrence of whales in Hawaiian waters can shift a few weeks earlier or later each year.

The Great Whale Count results show there was a higher proportion of calves recorded this year than last year (11% of all sightings compared to 7% of all sightings in 2015). Despite the increase,PWF reports that the number of calf sightings were down, but fell within the normal range. McGregor Point had the highest percentage of calves: 21% of all whales sighted were calves, followed by Ma’alaea with 15% and Kapalua with 14%.

PWF researchers are encouraged by the overall upward trend in the number of whales sighted since 1995. 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 season. 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.

“We are pleased that our Great Whale Count data correlate with other scientific studies, indicating a steady increase of the population of North Pacific humpback whales,” said Jens Currie, PWF senior research analyst and leader of a group counting whales at Pu'u Olai, the hill near Makena Beach State Park. “The Great Whale Count is an invaluable tool for getting a snapshot view that we can use to build a bigger, more long-term picture.”

Currie's site at Pu’u Olai recorded the largest number of whale sightings, with 153 whales, including 15 calves. Other sites with high counts this year include McGregor Point, with 117 whales counted (25 calves) and Kapalua with 76 animals (11 calves). 

All sites reported a fairly quiet day with few conspicuous behaviors to record. The site with the highest number of conspicuous behaviors was Kahana with 69, followed by Lahaina with 64 and Kapalua with 52.

Research assistant Jessica McCordic reports that during one five-minute scan they recorded 23 breaches, pec slaps, and tail slaps from four different pods. She notes that this may have been a form of communication as the pods seemed to engage in these behaviors in sequence, with each conspicuous behavior followed by a responsive behavior from another whale.

Observers in Kahana were delighted to see a pod of dolphins interacting with four adult humpback whales. At McGregor Point an adult whale breached just offshore to the amazement of the observers. “It was like slow motion!” exclaimed volunteer Emily Hayes.

“The Great Whale Count is always fun and educational for everyone who participates,” said Stephanie Stack, coordinator of the event and Pacific Whale Foundation senior research biologist. The weather conditions were calm and sunny at all sites, however observers from all sites reported seeing vog causing hazy conditions. "The volunteers were enthusiastic and well-prepared as always. I cannot say enough good things about our Great Whale Count volunteers,” reports Stack. “They are so dedicated to the Count, showing up whether it’s raining or in the hot sun, and they take pride in learning how to collect data.”

“The Great Whale Count demonstrates the power of citizen science,” said Pacific Whale Foundation Founder and Executive Director, Greg Kaufman. “Volunteers with many different backgrounds receive training in data collection and research, and then assist our research staff in gathering sound data. This event empowers the public to engage in research, increase awareness, and ultimately build a greater commitment to protecting whales." Participants included a mix of veteran Great Whale Count volunteers and first-time counters. One volunteer at Kihei Surfside showed off his 1989 Pacific Whale Foundation Whale Day t-shirt!

The citizen scientists counted from 12 locations on Maui’s coastline, using a protocol that was first established by Pacific Whale Foundation 28 years ago (1988) to gather data on humpback whales in the area. The 12 counting stations are primarily positioned along Maui’s south and western shores, in an area extending from Makena to Kapalua. The sites are: Ka’anapali, Kahana, Lahaina, La’uniupoko, Ma’alaea, Papawai Point lookout, North Kihei, South Kihei, Wailea, Makena, and Ho’okipa.

Using a consistent protocol allows Pacific Whale Foundation researchers to compare data from year to year and detect trends over time. Each location has the same number of observers each year, to maintain a consistent long-term dataset. In 2012, the scholarly article Predicting trends in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) abundance using citizen science was published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology and can be downloaded from the PWF website.

During each scan, volunteers recorded the number of pods, individuals in each group, and presence of calves visible within three nautical miles from their stations. Environmental conditions were also recorded including sea state, glare percentage, wind speed and direction. Immediately following this scan, observers devoted five minutes to recording conspicuous behaviors, such as breaches, pectoral fin slaps, tail slaps, and peduncle throws. This scanning cycle was repeated throughout the morning.

Pacific Whale Foundation originated the Great Whale Count in 1988 and helped introduce the event to neighboring islands. In 1996, it was started on Oahu, in partnership with the then newly created Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The Sanctuary continues to run counts of marine wildlife independently from PWF under the name "Ocean Count" since 1998.

Pacific Whale Foundation is a non-profit organization based on Maui dedicated to protecting whales and our oceans through science and advocacy. The Great Whale Count is part of the Maui Whale Festival, and next year’s Count is scheduled to take place on February 25, 2017. For information contact research@pacificwhale.org or call PWF's Research Team at (808) 856-8305. Complete results can be seen on www.pacificwhale.org.
 

Media Contact:
Alison Stewart
Pacific Whale Foundation
(808) 283-9822
alisonstewart@pacificwhale.org