Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024 |
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PORT ALLEN — Loriannah Hespe’s camera was packed safely out of the elements during her Niihau tour with Blue Dolphin Adventures when she heard someone yell “spout!”
“I ran. My camera bag was tucked underneath the bench in the top level and I grabbed my camera and, go,” Hespe said. “It was there and then it was gone. I got the last of the fluke as it was going down.”
The Southern California native has been vacationing on Kauai for 11 years, and that Oct. 10 excursion was the first time she saw a humpback whale around the island.
It was also the first documented Kauai sighting of a humpback whale for the 2017 humpback whale season, and Hespe earned the honor by submitting the photo to happywhale.com.
It’s a data-gathering site that enables scientists to track and document humpback whales, identifying them by the unique markings on their flukes. Citizens are encouraged to send their fluke photos to the website to help with data collection.
Hespe, a nurse, lives in San Juan Capistrano with her husband, and generally sees gray whales and blue whales off the Southern California coast.
“I love whale watching, and we were so happy to see it this early,” Hespe said. “We’re always looking for a spout when we’re near the ocean.”
The first undocumented, but still reported 2017 sighting of a humpback whale in Hawaii happened near Kauai in early September, according to Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Sightings followed days later on Oahu, and the first sightings of whales were reported in Maui at the beginning of October. Experts say the real season doesn’t kick off until December.
“It’s not necessarily the first whales to arrive,” Lyman said. “It’s the first sighting. We’re careful to point out when you get a sighting in August or early September, it could be the last whale, not the first whale.”
Generally whale season on Kauai is from December through May, with the bulk of sightings in January and February.
Whales have lingered in Hawaiian waters longer than that, however.
“In October and November, the probability moves more toward an arrival for the coming season,” Lyman said.
Whale count events are held annually throughout the islands in March, and the final 2017 Kauai Ocean Count was announced March 27.
The count is done three times a year during peak whale-sighting season.
Based on an informal tally, Kauai sites averaged two whales per 5-minute count period. A little more than 100 volunteers helped with the count at 15 sites around Kauai.
A total of 85 whale sightings were recorded from 8:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. on March 27 on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.
In March 2016, the Kauai average was 0.8 whales per 15-minute count period, and there were a total of 94 whale sightings on Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Islands between 9 a.m. and 9:15 a.m.
In March 2015, Kauai and the Big Island averaged two whales every 15 minutes, and Oahu averaged three every 15 minutes.
March 2014 yielded an average of three whales every 15 minutes on Kauai and Oahu, and two per every 15-minute time period on the Big Island.
Kauai reported four whale sightings every 15 minutes in March 2013, and Hawaii and Oahu calculated an average of three.
The numbers reflect a decline in humpback whale sightings over the past couple of years, but experts say that doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer whales in the water.
“It could be distribution changes and movement patterns,” Lyman said. “In the end, we don’t have enough information and everyone’s hypothesizing.”
Generally, fewer whales are being spotted, Lyman said, but he points to the central north Pacific stock’s condition overall, and said their numbers have been climbing steadily.
“We’ve taken them off the endangered species list,” he said. “The trends have been going way up, and the last two seasons they’ve fallen. We’ve noticed, everyone did, but we don’t know what that change means yet.”
Even with the slight decline, Hespe was thrilled to catch her first humpback whale off the coast of Kauai, and said the fact she’d captured the first photo of the season was icing on the cake.
“We love Kauai and go at least every other year,” she said. “It’s so special to see whales there.”
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