LIHUE — Lee Ann Apao was curious Saturday morning, slowing her running pace to study the group of people gathered behind a pod of parked cars at Ahukini State Park.
“I run here often, but never saw this,” said the founder of Salon 203 in Lihue. “Do they know if we have orca in Hawaii waters?”
Marga Goosen, the site leader for the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Count, quickly stepped to the plate, answering Apao’s questions before the morning runner left and Goosen returned to her task of administering the group of volunteers.
The group at Ahukini Landing were among more than 527 volunteers who collect data from the 48 shoreline sites on Oahu, Hawaii Island and Kauai during the first of three Ocean Counts hosted by the HINMS. Kauai volunteers were at 13 of the 15 available sites, said Jean Souza, the HINMS Kauai programs coordinator.
Cindy Among-Serrao, the Sanctuary Ocean Count project coordinator, said Ocean Count serves to promote public awareness about humpback whales, the sanctuary and shore-based whale watching opportunities. The count is conducted three times a year during the peak whale season and offers a snapshot of humpback whale sightings from the shoreline. Volunteer participants tally humpback whale sightings and document the animal’s surface behavior during the survey which covers four hours from 8:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
“We’ve been doing this for the past eight or nine years,” said Carol Stewart, one of the Ahukini counters. “We moved here from Oregon, and missed the first year. But we’ve done this count every year since.”
Jim Labau of Alaska even had his “whale shirt” on, and Goosen pointed out first-time volunteer Sarah Hauler who was wearing the 2017 version of the Ocean Count shirt.
“I moved here from Michigan,” said Hauler, who was partnered with Labau for the count. “I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s fun.”
Among-Serrao said whale viewing conditions across the state were nearly perfect.
“A total of 70 whale sightings were seen during the 10 to 10:15 a.m. time period,” Among-Serrao said.
“This the most of any time period throughout the day’s count. Many sites also observed green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and sea birds, and a couple of sites observed flying fish and a Hawaiian monk seal.”
Souza said the Kauai sites, based on preliminary unofficial count figures, saw an average of four whale viewings within a 15-minute time count period. That average was down from the six sightings of the 2016 count.
“Something must be going on down there,” said Ralph Stewart. “We saw two sightings in the same place over the last 18 minutes. It must be the same whale because it didn’t move from that spot.”
The highest number of Kauai sightings were reported from the Makahuena Point site with 10 viewings. The lowest was at Ahukini, Kaiwa Point and the Waimea Canyon Drive lookout with one.
Souza said Kauai’s count was performed by 117 volunteers over the 13 sites. In addition to collecting data, 176 “whale education” recipients, including Apao, were reported.
“One of the most notable observations on Kauai was reported by Rebecca Fries, the site leader at the Mahaulepu- Makawehi Point,” Souza said. “She saw 100 pec slaps within 10 minutes by two whales.”
Souza said data from all sites will be posted within a week on www.HawaiiHumpbackWhale.noaa.gov and on www.sanctuaryoceancount.org.
Thre year’s remaining ocean counts are scheduled for Feb. 25 and March 25.
Volunteers wishing to participate need to pre-register by emailing Souza at Jean.Souza@noaa.gov with their name, count date preference, site preference, a contact phone number and email address.
New volunteers, and those who want a refresher, also need to go through a required two-hour training session. These will be held at the King Kaumuali‘i Elementary School cafeteria from 9 to 11 a.m. on Feb. 18 and March 18.