They’re baaaaack

LIHUE — Humpback whales have returned to their winter playground — around the island of Kauai.

The season of acrobatic breaching, tail slaps, head lunges and blowhole spouts has begun.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mel Wills, operations manager at Holoholo Charters, received a text message from one of his captains.

“He’s looking at a baby humpback, a newborn, that’s breaching off Kekaha,” Wills said of the captain, Wendell Merritt. “So yep, I’d say whales are back.”

One of the earliest arrivals was spotted from the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge around 2 p.m. Oct. 24, according to Jane Hoffman, executive director of the Kilauea Point Natural History Association.

“That was the official first sighting at Kilauea Point,” she said.

Jean Souza, Kauai program coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said the first report she received was on Oct. 20 when Wailua resident Gary Langley spotted a group near Larsen’s Beach on Kauai’s North Shore.

“There had to be at least seven, maybe eight,” Langley said. “And over the couple-hour period I saw about 25 to 30 breaches.”

Every year from about November to May, as many as 10,000 humpback whales, known in the Hawaiian language as kohola, return from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the warmer waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth — a 3,000 mile journey that is often completed in as few as 36 days.

The gentle giants can reach lengths of up to 60 feet, weigh up to 40 tons and consume 3,000 pounds of food per day.

Holoholo Capt. Glenn Stalker also spotted a small group of humpbacks during a sunset cruise Tuesday, about 1.25 miles off Honopu Beach on the Na Pali Coast, according to Wills.

“He wasn’t sure how many, but he saw numerous spouts,” Wills said. “He thought it was at least three of four.”

Lori Barrett, marketing manager at Blue Dolphin Charters, said there have also been a couple of confirmed sightings by employees and passengers of her company.  

“Somebody saw one over in Kilauea, and I heard there was one spotted over by Poipu,” she said.

Although Blue Dolphin is not making any promises on sightings just yet, it has started running its two-hour Poipu whale watching tour, which includes listening for the animals using a hydrophone.

While getting out on the water offers an up-close-and-personal experience, many local residents and visitors opt to watch from the shore.

Each year, the HIHWNMS Ocean Count project offers community members the opportunity to volunteer and help monitor whales around the state, including 15 locations on Kauai.

The 2014 Sanctuary Ocean Count dates have been scheduled for Jan. 25, Feb. 22 and March 29. However, registration does not begin until December.

The award-winning outreach program — winner of the 2012 Take Pride in America “Best Federal Volunteer Program” — provides important population and distribution information on humpbacks around the islands.

Volunteers select the date they wish to participate and choose the most appropriate site for them. To ensure that participants have a better experience and that NOAA obtains reliable data, volunteers are required to attend a free Sanctuary Ocean Count training session.

Info: www.hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov, or contact the Sanctuary Kauai Office at 246-2860.

• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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