LIHUE — Saturday was one of the best sanctuary ocean count days ever on Kauai, said Jean Souza, the Kauai programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
“The average number of humpback whales counted in a 15-minute count period were among the most counted on Kauai in the last 10 years,” Souza said. “In the last 11 seasons, there have been only two other counts when the Kauai average has been eight whales per count period — January 2012 and January 2009.”
More than 160 volunteers viewed and counted an average of eight whales per 15-minute count period at 15 viewing sites from Lumahai through Mana at the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
A sanctuary release states that more than 850 volunteers gathered data and saw a total of 354 whales from the shores of Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island on Saturday during the first event of the 20th Sanctuary Ocean Count.
This compares with the average four whales counted on Oahu and seven whales seen on the Big Island. The eight-whale average is also an increase from six in January 2014.
Lumahai was the least active sight with just three sightings in the 15-minute count period. The Mahaulepu-Makauwahi Natural Trail was the most active with 13 sightings followed by 12 sightings at the Mahaulepu-Makawehi site.
Despite the low count, Susan Ferrell, the site leader at Lumahai, reported a mother and calf being at the site throughout the 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. count period.
Viewing conditions were excellent with flat, calm seas and clear weather, Souza said. Counters also saw numerous dolphins, spinners and bottlenose, along with sea turtles and seabirds.
“There is almost no wind,” said John Burger, the site leader at the Kapaa Lookout site. “This, and the bright sun, allows the blows to be seen by more people.”
Burger also reported a competition group in which two whales breached toward each other simultaneously six times, Souza said.
Souza said the count was so active that a lot of the leaders had stories to tell about their observations.
“Becky Fries, leading the Mahaulupu-Makawehi Point site, said there were spinner dolphins and humpback whales swimming together,” Souza said. “There were 30 to 40 bottlenose dolphins surrounding a mother and calf with the mother pec-slapping, was the report from Carol Everett who headed the Kaiwa Point site.”
Additional comments included a whale doing 105 consecutive tail slaps from Dennis Rowley, head of the PMRF site, and another whale doing 45 consecutive tail slaps so close to shore the volunteers onshore could hear the slaps, said Mary Werthwine, of the Mahaulepu-Makauwahi Nature Trail.
But none of the stories could top the photo from Lani Tamanaha Broadbent, who was the acting site leader at Ahukini Pier site. She captured the image, seen above, of two adults and a calf that were within 150 feet of shore. The group occasionally logged, or rested, at the surface.
“You can see the tubercles on the rostrum, or head, the elevated splash guard where the blowholes are located, and the low dorsal fin to the right,” Souza said of the photo. “Unseen below the water surface are the lower jaw, eyes, pec fins and flukes.”
Two more Sanctuary Ocean Counts are scheduled to take place on Feb. 28 and March 28. Interested volunteers are able to register online at www.sanctuaryoceancount.org, or call 246-2860 on Kauai.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count is a shore-based census which provides snapshot data on humpback whales, during which participants tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior during the survey period.