The whales are here! And this time, they’re closer than ever, as evident by the crowds of people and camera crews that flocked to Honolulu Harbor a few days ago. With whale season upon us, we were lucky enough to have a mother humpback whale and her baby hang out for a day after following a boat into the harbor. Because it’s such a rare occurrence for whales to get so close to land, barriers were put up for their protection.Humpbacks having a whale of a time in Honolulu Harbor this week.

Every year, between the months of December and March, more than half of the worlds humpback whales (or Kohola in Hawaiian) make the long migration from their fertile Alaskan feeding grounds to Hawaii. Here, they give birth, mate and nurse their young in our islands’ warm waters. Known as one of the world’s most acrobatic whale species, the Kohola give us humans a whale of a show when they go airborne; launching their 20-ton bodies clear out of the water and falling back with a splash that one can see from miles away.

People from all over the world come to marvel at this mammoth mammal ballet, while locals stop at their favorite lookouts to see if they recognize old friends. Maui residents even refer to the area of ocean between Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i and Kaho’olawe as “whale soup” because the ocean is thick with these gentle giants.

An Endangered Species

Sadly, people haven’t always treated humpbacks with respect. They were once hunted commercially in the North Pacific until their population depleted to about 1,500 inpiduals. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission prohibited the whaling of humpbacks, and these giant mammals became listed as an endangered species; on the same list as the monk seals. In 1992, Congress established the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, protecting humpback whales and their habitats in Hawaii.

Protecting Whale Friends

Part of the Sanctuary’s efforts in protecting Hawaii’s Kohola is through public outreach and education. In 1996, the Sanctuary started an annual Hawaiian Humpback Whale Ocean Count to give residents and visitors the chance to take part in monitoring the whales’ population and behavior. Since the ocean count has begun, researchers have reported that Hawaii’s whale population has increased at an annual rate of five to seven percent!

On the last Saturday of the months January to March, volunteers can choose from one of 60 sites from which to count. These sites are located on the islands of O’ahu, Kaua’i and the Big Island. Kaho’olawe also participates in the count, but public travel is prohibited. According to the Sanctuary’s website, “Site leaders train volunteers on how to count the number of humpback whales and other species sighted during each 15-minute time interval beginning at 8:00 am with the last count of the day being taken from 12:00 to 12:15 pm.” Behavior such as breaches, tail and fin slaps, pes and spouts are also recorded.Spitting Caves, a popular spot to get up close and personal with whales in Hawaii.

I have been volunteering with the whale count on Oahu for the past seven years and absolutely love it! It is a wonderful opportunity for visitors and locals alike to spend time in some of the most beautiful areas of the islands while helping one of the world’s most majestic creatures. I remember going to the Spitting Caves location one morning and seeing almost a dozen Kohola jumping out of the water, so close that you could hear their splashes. A rainbow formed across the horizon as I sat down with my data sheet, in complete awe and barely being able to keep up my tally marks. I didn’t want to miss a thing.

It was one of those moments that will forever be engrained in my memory; a moment that I hope my great-grandchildren will experience one day as well. And just by being there and participating in this important event, I knew that they one day would.

Photo Credit: Leigh Ishida (first photo)

WHALE COUNT • Jan. 28, Feb. 25 & Mar.31, 2012 8am-1230pm • Multiple Locations • www.sanctuaryoceancount.org / info@sanctuaryoceancount.org

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Serena for the excellent blog post..and how cool for you to be a volunteer with the whale count on Oahu. I’m sure it’s still exciting with every counted whale even after 7 yrs of counting.
    When I’m out paddling my canoe, I’m always stoked to see a whale! It just makes my day so much better.

  2. I’ve never seen a whale up close. Maybe a pod of dolphins or some honu, but never whales! That would be the day…maybe they’ll be around the harbor sometime soon…Thanks, Serena for this post!

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