On Saturday, more than 100 volunteers will take to Kauai’s oceanfronts at 15 different sites for the first of three ocean counts hosted by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in 2015.
Among those volunteers, Bruce and Christy Parsil will be taking up their station as co-site leaders, naturalists and co-mentors.
For 20 years, volunteers have gathered to count whales and record their behaviors from more than 60 shoreline sites on the islands of Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai.
In addition to whales, other sightings of marine life, including sea birds and dolphins, are recorded during the project, which allows the public the chance to learn more about humpback whale population, distribution and behavioral trends while being involved in a volunteer effort.
Volunteers are required to register and participate in a free training session prior to the start of an ocean count, and according to Jean Souza, the HIHWNMS Kauai programs coordinator, Christy Parsil has taught several of these training sessions.
“She is really good with people,” Souza said. “If there are volunteers who have not taken the training, we try to place them at a site where she is the site leader because she can properly help them with the data recording.”
The 2015 ocean counts are scheduled for from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Saturday, and again on Feb. 28 and March 28. Interested volunteers may register at www.sanctuaryoceancount.org.
TGI: How long have you been involved with Ocean Count and how did you get involved?
Bruce: We moved to Kauai in September 2001 and almost immediately, a neighbor told us about the Sanctuary Ocean Count and the upcoming training. We have been participants on the frontline and behind the scenes ever since.
TGI: What is your background?
Bruce: I was born in New Jersey and never remember having seen a whale there. I studied ancient Latin and Greek language and literatures and in 1968, earned a Ph.D. in classical and humanistic studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts. My academic career was at the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, and Prescott College, all in Tucson, Arizona. Nothing in my formal background led me to my second life as a volunteer with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Monk Seal Hui, Kilauea Point Nature Wildlife Refuge, and National Tropical Botanical Garden. But I was an avid hiker, I loved nature, and being introduced to the humpback whale sanctuary’s Ocean Count opened the door to what has so far been a wonderful, 14-year-long, busy ocean-centered retirement.
Christy: I grew up in Ohio. My senior year of high school I spent some evenings at the university library and discovered a book about dolphins. Ineligible for a library card, it took me several months to read the whole thing, but I was hooked. When Bruce and I first learned from Mark Deakos about the observed friendly relationships between the humpbacks and dolphins, and then I saw Bruce’s tattoo, I felt that enthusiasm all over again.
TGI: What is the significance of the sanctuary Ocean Count?
Bruce: Ocean Count allows hundreds of people, both locals and visitors, to participate in an important information-gathering event focused on a species which many have never even seen before. As with all environmental conservation efforts, the more people who have a personal involvement — informed by accurate scientific research — the better the effort moves forward. The ocean count training that is offered by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s training educates participants in new directions, broadening their knowledge, and then they enthusiastically share their experiences with others, locally or wherever they live. Both the whales and the humans benefit.
Christy: My role at Ocean Count in recent years has been to work with trained volunteers, and also untrained volunteers who will hopefully go through training and join us next year. I feel we need to try to engage people at the time they are interested. Also, I look to the future for our volunteers to take over from us. Besides, what great dinner conversations our local and visiting volunteers will be able to have!
TGI: As purveyors of information at Ocean Count, and overlapping with your volunteerism at the Kilauea lighthouse, what are people interested in, or perhaps, what intrigues people about whales and other marine life?
Bruce: Interestingly, the general population asks the same questions the research scientists are still asking: Why are the whales (or birds or dolphins) behaving the way they do? Since many of those questions are yet unanswered, the answers we provide are, and must be, complex and tentative, and they always lead people to other sources of information — Jim Darling’s “Hawaii’s Humpbacks,” Carl Safina’s “Eye of the Albatross,” and others. Questions about inter-species interactions, such as whales with dolphins, are frequently asked.
Christy: Most of my interaction with the volunteers involves helping them describe what they have observed, link it with the information we know so far about humpback behavior, and figure out how to record it on the data sheet for the researchers to analyze.
TGI: Over the years, what is your most memorable experience with whales, or other marine life?
Bruce: Without a doubt, Jean Souza’s allowing me to participate in the Structures of Population, Levels of Abundance and Status and Humpback Whales (SPLASH) research project on Mark Deakos’ boat led to my most memorable experiences. To personally be involved in the kind of close-up research, which federally permitted scientists do, to be out there within a few yards of combative, mating-focused whale behaviors, and to know that the information being gathered will be of essential value for future research —that is dream-fulfilling.
Christy: My favorite story is the night Bruce came home after a SPLASH day. He said the captain told him to set down his clipboard and come lie at the front of the boat, hanging over the bow so he could look straight down in the water. When he did, he realized a whale was directly beneath him and then suddenly a calf floated to the side and a little up, with milk streaming between it and the mother. I tear up when I think of what an incredible experience that was.
TGI: Any other interesting personal comments on Ocean Count and marine life?
Bruce: Ocean Count led to other sanctuary events and things: Science on the Beach, Science Day at Sea, Family Ocean Fair, Brown Bag Lunch with the Whales, many chartered catamaran cruises, and continuing education opportunities with many of the foremost marine scientists. Being selected as 2007 vvolunteer of the year for HIHWNMS would not have been possible if we had not joined Ocean Count and worked so closely with Jean Souza.
Christy: We’d been here quite a few years when a friend and I (who also moved here in 2001) walked over a sand dune on Kekaha beach and were startled by a humpback whale breaching — no warning, no blow first, no slaps, just straight up in the air. And so close, we could see the pleats — which I had never seen live before. Ends up, it was her first time to even see a humpback. We may not see them that close during Ocean Count, but hopefully the experience and the information shared will bring more meaning when people experience marine critters here, or wherever they are.