Posted on: February 23, 2013

Volunteers Tally 1,126 Whale Sightings in Pacific Whale Foundation's 2013 Great Whale Count off Maui

Over 100 volunteers worked with Pacific Whale Foundation researchers today to record 1,126 humpback whale sightings during the annual Great Whale Count off Maui.

“Some sites experienced gusty trade winds, which kicked up the sea and made it challenging to locate whales. Nonetheless, the count was a success,” reported Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez, Senior Researcher at Pacific Whale Foundation.

“This was my first whale count and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of working as and one of the site leaders,” said Dr. Martinez. “It helps to have dedicated volunteers, who are so motivated and enthusiastic about the Great Whale Count.”

“The count was smoothly run and stress-free,” remarked Derek Reese, who volunteered as a counter today. “As a back-room engineer from Oxford I can quite honestly say that today’s was the best lab I’ve ever worked in.”

The volunteers and researchers worked from 12 locations on Maui’s coastline, using a protocol that was first established by Pacific Whale Foundation in 1988 to gather data on humpback whales in the area. Using a consistent protocol allows Pacific Whale Foundation researchers to compare data from year to year and detect trends over time.

The 12 counting stations are positioned along Maui’s south and western shores, in an area extending from Makena to Kapalua. The sites include the Marriott in Ka’anapali, S-Turns in Kahana, 505 Front Street and Launiopoko in Lahaina, Pacific Whale Foundation’s office and Papawai Point in Ma’alaea, Kihei Surfside near Kamaole III Beach Park and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Offices in Kihei, Polo Beach in Wailea, Pu’u Olai in Makena.  The last site is at Hookipa Beach Park on Maui’s north shore.

Training at each site began at 8:00 am, with official counting from 8:30 am to 11:55 am. Observers at all sites worked in concurrent 20-minute intervals. During the first 10 minutes, they scanned within three nautical miles from their stations as the accuracy of determining numbers in each pod and the sightability of calves diminishes dramatically beyond that point.

During each scan, number of pods, individuals in each group, and presence of calves were recorded. Distance and compass bearing to each pod were plotted on a map. Environmental conditions were also recorded including sea state, glare percentage, as well as 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. The remaining five minutes were “rest time”—and then the scanning cycle was repeated throughout the morning.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s founder and Executive Director Greg Kaufman led a team of observers at the top of Pu'u Olai, near Makena Beach. Kaufman said that "on a scale of 1 to 10, today's conditions across the board on Maui were about a 6." He noted that the counting conditions were better on Maui than on Oahu, Kaua’i, and the Big Island, where the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was also conducting a count. "Weather conditions on the other islands caused cancellations at a few sites, but overall, viewing around the state was fair," he noted. 

“Please note that we are not recording the number of whales out there, but a proportion of the whales off Maui given that we restrict our observations to within three nautical miles. In addition, we space our stations three miles apart, so we do not overlap the areas in which we conduct our whale scan windows,” reported Kaufman.

After reviewing today's data, Kaufman believes that the peak of whalewatch season is yet to come on Maui. Indeed, he pointed out a lower number of calves recorded this year than last year (83 calves or 7.6% of all sightings compared to 9.7% in 2012). Furthermore, only two competition pods were observed throughout all counting sites.

"Typically, at the peak of the season, we see mothers and calves inshore, and competition pods beginning to move inshore as well," he noted. "I think the whales are still arriving to Maui from the south, from the direction of the Big Island, and predict we'll be seeing greater amounts of nearshore activity in the weeks to come."

What is most important to Kaufman is the overall upward trend in the number of whales sighted since 1995. "We are pleased that our Great Whale Count data correlate with other scientific studies, indicating a steadily increase of the population of North Pacific humpback whales," he said. “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.”

Pacific Whale Foundation's data from the Great Whale Count show four-year population "spikes" leading Kaufman to theorize that the next big count may take place in 2015. "These spikes are most likely related to birthing cycles, when the most mature females are giving birth," he says.

The site at Pu’u Olai recorded the largest number of whale sightings, 327 whales, including 15 calves. The next best site was Papawai Point, with 187 whales counted (14 calves). Pacific Whale Foundation’s office at Ma’alaea had the third highest count, with 113 animals (3 calves).

Observers stationed in Kapalua were treated to the sight of a mother-calf pair breaching. The group at Kihei Surfside watched with concern as a mother and calf were surrounded by small watercraft for about two hours, until the Coast Guard arrived. “It showed us the importance of continuing Pacific Whale Foundation’s ‘Be Whale Aware’ education program to help all ocean users understand how to watch whales and minimize disturbance to the animals,” said Dr. Martinez.

Data from The Great Whale Count are compiled and evaluated by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team and supplement field studies. Previous results are published in the peer-reviewed journal Pacific Conservation Biology in an article entitled “Predicting trends in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) abundance using citizen-science."

Pacific Whale Foundation helped introduce the Great Whale Count to neighboring islands. In 1996, it was started on Oahu, 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 counts independently.

Pacific Whale Foundation is a nonprofit organization based on Maui dedicated to protecting whales and our oceans through science and advocacy. To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation, please visit

The Great Whale Count is part of the Maui Whale Festival, a series of whale-related events taking place from late January through March. The festival continues with a 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 through the end of February. Admission is free. For more information about other Maui Whale Festival events, please call Pacific Whale Foundation at (808) 249-8811 or or