Tails of whales leave some speechless

AHUKINI — Whale-count site-leader Angela Tillson had no voice at the end of four hours after the most recent volunteer count.

Jean Souza of the Kaua’i office of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary said Tillson was so excited at the show the whales put on during the Marine Ocean Count that, by the end of the four-hour count period, Tillson literally had no voice.

She said the whales seemed to put on a show unlike at any other Ocean Count she’s been to.

“I guess I have a sense for whales,” said Tillson, the site leader for the count at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Ahukini State Recreational Pier.

“I should have been a whale.”

At the Ahukini site, volunteers averaged five whales sighted during a 15-minute interval. That is up from the two whales sighted in the same time interval during the last count, on Jan. 28.

Additionally, Tillson said there appeared to be two areas the whales were gathering in, one about a half mile from the shoreline, and the other further out on the horizon.

Because of the closer pod’s proximity to shore, the excitement started with blow sightings, which led to several tail sightings while out in the distant pod, obvious pectoral slaps and full breaches could be seen.

Souza added that, following a week of inclement weather, conditions were ideal for whale sightings during the most recent count.

Of the 15 locations around Kaua’i where count sites were established, the highest number of sightings came at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where 13 whales were counted in the 15-minute interval. That is up from the seven sightings on the Jan. 28 count at the Kilauea location.

The lowest counts were reported at two of the Westside sites, where two whales were counted in the 15-minute time frame.

The Waimea Canyon Look-out site was up from its one sighting, to two sightings. While at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, the count was down from the six sightings there on Jan. 28.

Souza was pleased that, of the statewide averages, Kaua’i had the highest counts, excluding Kaho’olawe.

Kaua’i’s average came out to five whales, compared with O’ahu and the Big Island, reporting four whales every 15 minutes. Kaho’olawe had the highest average with 16 whales, but Souza explained that Maui has the highest density of whales.

Compared to the 2005 counts, Souza said this year’s population is down to three whales as compared with six whales seen in 2005.

Additionally, volunteer counts were also down, with 137 volunteers manning the 15 sites, as compared with 149 who turned out for the Jan. 28 count.

Statewide, more than 750 volunteers gathered data from the shores of O’ahu, Kaua’i, the Big Island, and Kaho’olawe, states a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those volunteers collected data from 63 sites statewide.

“It was great to see so many volunteers taking part in this month’s count,” said Christine Brammer, Sanctuary Ocean Count Coordinator.

“The Ocean Count project provides a unique opportunity for the public to learn about Hawai’i’s humpbacks, while participating in a monitoring effort.”

On Kaua’i, Souza spent a day recently with students at Kilauea School, doing presentations during the school’s Career Day, and extended her visit to give a whale-disentanglement presentation to students there.

Monday, Souza was occupied with a humpback-whale presentation at Eleele School, where students planned to do their own ocean-count yesterday, weather permitting.

Scientific studies have shown that Hawai’i’s humpback whale population has been increasing at an annual rate of approximately 7 percent for the past 10 years. Over time, data from the Sanctuary Ocean Count can be used to corroborate these scientific findings, the NOAA press release said.

Hawaiian waters provide critical breeding habitat for an estimated 5,000 whales, or approximately two-thirds of the North Pacific stock of humpback whales.

The NOAA release said volunteer participants enjoy the four hours they spend observing the humpbacks, and many come back year after year for the experience, some planning their vacations around the count dates.

Souza noted she received phone calls from interested volunteers from as far away as Connecticut after The Garden Island ran an initial article about the schedule of events for Humpback Whale Awareness Month.

The final Sanctuary Ocean Count for 2006 is scheduled for March 26, after which final results will be analyzed and compiled. These findings will be available on the sanctuary Web site at hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov in the fall.

For more information on becoming a Sanctuary Ocean Count volunteer, people can contact Souza at 246-2860.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is administered by a partnership of those in the NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program and the state DLNR.

Currently, the federal program administrators manage 13 national-marine sanctuaries and one coral-reef-ecosystem reserve that encompasses more than 150,000 square miles of America’s oceans and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

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