Star-Bulletin Features

Janet Mikula and Jim Hawkins were up at dawn watching for humpback whales off East Oahu.

Tally ho!

Volunteers gather for a fun
day of counting whales

By Gary C.W. Chun

The blow. The pec slap, tail slap and peduncle slap. The fluke up dive. And, of course, the always crowd-pleasing breach.

Sixteen pairs of eyes were trained on the waters just beyond the Halona Blowhole Lookout on March 30, on watch for any of the humpback whale behaviors above and one last glimpse of these magnificent mammals as they near the end of their winter stay in warm Hawaiian waters.

It was the final whale count of the 2002 season, done by statewide volunteers for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, a monthly tabulation held since January. Calm seas were the order of the slightly chilly day as the counters lined up in their favorite beach chairs.


Carey Morishige, one of 25 site leaders, said, "This is meant to be just a fun day, done for educational purposes and to hopefully instill a conservation ethic into our volunteers."

The official season for humpback whales in Hawaii is from December to April, and with sighting groups positioned from Diamond Head to Haleiwa that day, it seemed impossible that any humpback would go untallied along Oahu's eastern coast.

The humpback whales travel approximately 6,000 miles round-trip for winter breeding in Hawaii and summer feeding in Alaska. About 3,500 to 5,000 whales make the commute annually. Thanks to conservation efforts, it's been calculated that the population has increased about 7 percent a year.

While here, boisterous males compete for mates early in the season, and now sanctuary staff and volunteers are seeing the results of such meetings, with calves swimming close to their mothers.

When not scanning the ocean with the aid of binoculars, volunteers passed the time chatting, sipping sodas and noshing on fruit or junk food. Morishige would call out every half-hour to alert her group to take scheduled, staggered breaks, since the only restroom facilities available were at nearby Sandy Beach.

The group was not only on the lookout for humpbacks, but occasional humans in boats and kayaks wandering too close to a mother and her calf. Some boaters are unaware of the danger of being caught too close to a breaching whale (a male reportedly elevated a boat in Maui waters earlier that week).

Carey Morishige, an intern with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary tells volunteers how to tally what they observe.

YOU WOULD THINK that after seeing humpbacks majestically breaching on TV nature programs, Morishige and the volunteers would be disappointed by the merest glimpses far from shore. Such was not the case. Whenever someone sighted a spray of water that signified a "blow," there would be yells, pointing fingers and the raising of binoculars to eager eyes.

As each volunteer dutifully logged a sighting, Morishige said, "We realize everyone writes down the same sighting, so our final count accommodates for the huge statistical error." The final count will not be known until June.

The popularity of volunteer whale counts has grown every year. "We've had sites on Oahu since 1996," she said. "In 1999 we added the Big Island and then, in 2000, Kauai. This is the first time this year that we've done three counts, due to the overwhelming response from the public and our wanting to accommodate them."

As the morning progressed, tour buses came and left. Visitors armed with cameras chatted with Morishige to glean some knowledge about Hawaii's ocean-bound "snowbirds."

Recent residents Janet Mikula and Jim Hawkins (from Maryland and Pennsylvania, respectively) found out about the whale count through last year's Marine Conservation Day and were hoping for more whale activity similar to what they'd witnessed a month earlier during a whale-watching tour. "We saw a dozen whales that day," Mikula said, "males chasing females, and we also saw a huge breach!"

He and Mikula became hooked on whales earlier, through underwater dives that enabled them to hear the otherworldly "whale songs."

Overhearing a group of Chinese tourists reacting to a sighting, Hawkins said, "It doesn't matter what language is spoken. The oohs and aahs are all the same!"

NEARBY, LAURIE LUSH was enjoying her third consecutive stint as a volunteer observer at the Blowhole. The office manager for Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland is also a paddler and kayaker, and her enthusiasm for the whales was boundless.

"January was slow," she said, "but in February we could see all of Molokai, Lanai and Maui, and with this magnificent backdrop, there was so much activity between 10:30 and 1. We saw a baby do 10 dives!

"This completes an education about humpback whales that first started 10 years ago, when I first saw a female escorted by pilot whales at Makapuu at the end of the season. It was such a magnificent sight! I've also learned that the different markings on the bottom of the tail, the black and white patterns on the underside of the fluke, are as unique as human fingerprints.

"I would like to one day do volunteer work at the sanctuary's office here. I'm amazed that with such a huge animal, it takes only one second to see their action above water. Oh my goodness!"

"C'mon back up, give us a show!" a gentleman with a Southern accent was imploring any whales within earshot.

"There've been no breaches yet but that's OK," Morishige said, pointing out a pod of spinner dolphins in consolation.

Then, 10:30 a.m. rolls around, and "it's the magic hour!" Morishige says as four quick, consecutive sightings take place. She lets out a "Woo hoo!" as a whale far offshore makes the first breach of the day.

Amused, Hawkins tells Morishige it's always the case that "someone yells, you look and all you see is a big splash." But there's no doubt things have picked up. With every consecutive "Breach!," yells and applause break out. By day's end, 278 whales were sighted off Oahu.

"This is free entertainment," Lush said. "It's better than watching it on TV."

To learn more about the whale count, call the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary at 397-2651. Names for next year's tally will be taken during the fall.

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