Posted on: February 25, 2012

1,054 Whales Tallied in 2012 Great Whale Count

A total of 1,054 humpback whale sightings were reported by more than 100 volunteers and researchers who counted whales from twelve shoreline lookout points on Maui during the 2012 Great Whale Count on Saturday, February 25, 2012. 

The Great Whale Count has taken place annually for 24 consecutive years – and is one of the world’s longest running cetacean projects involving citizen-scientists. The annual count is organized by Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit research, education and conservation organization based on Maui.

The counters tallied whale sightings that could be observed within three miles of shore this morning between 8:30 am and 11:55 am. All of the counting sites reported very mild winds and calm seas.

“There were perfect spotting conditions from Pu’u Olai, although the overcast sky made viewing a bit less than optimal,” reported Pacific Whale Foundation President and Founder Greg Kaufman, who was stationed on the hill at Makena Beach State Park with 12 volunteers. “The whales were fairly quiet; about 90% of all the whales we saw were headed into Ma’alaea Bay, with dozens of kayakers and a few stand up paddlers out there among the whales.”

The count follows a system established by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team in 1988. 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 nautical miles from their stations, 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,” said 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,” said Kaufman. “By spacing the counting stations three miles apart, we don’t overlap the areas in which we count during our whale scan windows.”

“Since we restrict our counts to the nearshore within three nautical miles, we are only counting a proportion of the whales off Maui,” Kaufman noted.

“Research shows the whales are spread throughout the entire four-island area of Maui County, and not just near shore; however counting whales that are nearshore gives us better chance to identify the composition of the pods that we see, and to spot calves," he said.

Christy Kozama, a Pacific Whale Foundation research assistant stationed at “S-Turns” (a popular surfing area near Kahana) reported that the “activity level was high throughout the morning.” She noted that a highlight at 11 am was the presence of a mother whale that appeared to be teaching her calf how to breach just ½ mile offshore. The counters observed the calf breaching multiple times.

Of the 1,054 animals tallied, 102 were calves. Overall, calves accounted for 9.7% of all of the sightings today. In 2011, calves accounted for 9.6% of the sightings.

The site at Pu’u Olai recorded the largest number of overall whale sightings. The counters tallied 232 whales; 33 of those were calves. The next best site for overall sightings was Papawai Point, the scenic lookout off Route 30 (Honoapiilani Highway). There were 189 whales counted, 21 of which were calves. Ma’alaea had the third highest count, with 167 animals tallied, 24 of which were calves.

This year’s tally of whales sighted was 34% less than what was reported in 2011, when 1,607 whale sightings were tallied. It was also below the count for 2010, when 1,208 whales were sighted. 

“There is potential for variability from year to year, “ said Daniela Maldini, PhD, Research Director at Pacific Whale Foundation. “Our hunch is that the season is late this year; we are only starting to see competition pods during the past few weeks and the calves we’re seeing are quite small.”

Kaufman agrees. “At Pu’u Olai, we observed a number of larger, more active groups of whales outside our three nautical mile observation area, giving credence to the notion that the season is still moving towards a peak of animals,” said Kaufman. “This is also supported by our observation at Pu’u Olai that more than 90% of the whales in our area were seen moving from the south into Ma’alaea Bay.”

“We know that the peak of the season, when the maximum number of reproductively active females, males, subadults and calves appear off Maui , can shift several weeks each year,” remarked Kaufman. “This may be determined by prey availability in the Alaskan feeding grounds, water temperatures and other environmental, biological and behavioral factors.”

“The Great Maui Whale Count represents a long term snapshot view of whales that can be sighted nearshore during a morning at what we estimate to be the peak of whale season,” said 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.”

“The numbers fluctuate from year to year, but in general, the general trend has indicated an increase in whale sightings,” noted Kaufman.

Kaufman commented that in 2002, there were only 673 whales tallied, followed by 815 in 2003 and 649 in 2005.

 “Our numbers since 2008 have consistently been over 1,000,” he reported. “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. “It is estimated that there are now 22,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific with about 60% (approximately 12,000) 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.”

The whales come to Maui to mate, give birth and care for their young, and are known for their dramatic behaviors, which include breaching, tail slapping and singing underwater.

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 sites included 505 Front Street in Lahaina, Kihei Surfside near Kamaole III Beach Park in Kihei, Launiopoko Park in Lahaina, Pacific Whale Foundation’s office in Ma’alaea, the Marriott in Ka’anapali, Papawai Point in Ma’alaea, Polo Beach in Wailea, Pu’u Olai in Makena, the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Offices in Kihei, and S-Turns in Kahana. The count was conducted by more than 100 volunteers who worked alongside Pacific Whale Foundation researchers and staff.

In 2011, counters tallied 1,607 sightings. In 2010, they reported 1,208 sightings. (The count took place a week later than usual, due to a tsunami warning on February 26, 2010.) 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.

Today’s tallies showed there were 627 pods or groups of whales, with an average of 1.7 whales per pod. Last year, there were 780 pods or groups of whales, with 2.1 whales per pod.

“This information about the smaller group size supports the theory that we are not at the peak of the season yet,” said Kaufman. “Larger group sizes would indicate more calves in area.”

“All the calves we spotted today were quite small, and all within 1.5 miles of shoreline,” he reported. “Prior research conducted by Pacific Whale Foundation shows that mother/calf pods are normally sighted in Ma’alaea Bay within three nautical miles, and then move offshore as the season progresses."

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. The data from The Great Whale Count is the subject of a recent scientific paper, “Predicting trends in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) abundance using citizen-science” by Pacific Whale Foundation’s researchers (Tonachella N, Nastasi A, Maldini D, Kaufman G, Rankin RW.) that is in review by Pacific Conservation Biology.

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 the free photography exhibit, “A Tribute to Whales,” which features photographs of whales and dolphins. The exhibit is located at the Ma’alaea Harbor Shops and is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is free. For more information about other Maui Whale Festival events, please call Pacific Whale Foundation at (808) 249-8811 or visit or