Whale Watching With A Purpose

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - March 11, 2009
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Volunteers scan the sea for whales

There’s something about the humpback whale that brings out the best in people.

“There’s no doubt whales get people’s attention and gets them involved,” says Christine Brammer, the Oahu programs coordinator for NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Count. “Just think about how people react whenever there’s a story in the newspaper or on television.”

Brammer witnessed just how involved people can be during a recent whale-counting event on Oahu. The whales and volunteers showed up, but so did gusty winds and heavy rains.

“That just proved how great our volunteers are. Even in tough weather, they won’t give up for anything,” chuckles Brammer.


As a result of the conditions, the whale count on Oahu was significantly lower than in years past for the month of February. Brammer says volunteers were starting to collect data from 55 sites statewide when high winds, heavy rains and rough seas forced organizers to shut down many sites.

“Even in that bad weather, we had 650 volunteers,” says an excited Brammer. “If conditions were better, we would have had more than 900 people out there!”

The sanctuary ocean count project offers Hawaii residents and visitors a chance to monitor humpback whales from the shores of O`ahu, the Big Island and Kaua`i.

The count is held on the last Saturday of January, February and March, the peak period of the whale season.

“One primary reason for this program is to get the public involved in a monitoring effort,” says Brammer. “This is their back yard, and this gives them a chance to protect it.”

Humpbacks slap their pectoral fins

Brammer says an estimated 12,000 whales visit the Islands each year. NOAA officials have seen a steady increase in the whale population in Hawaiian waters since the sanctuary was created in 1992.

“That’s actually quite amazing when you think about it,” says Brammer. “Back then there were less than 2,000 animals here, but that’s grown by nearly 7 percent each year.”

Brammer credits less hunting and better public education for the population boom. The increase has also equaled more revenue for the state and its fragile tourism industry.

“Whales have a huge economic value to the state” says Brammer. “There is whale watching at nearly every harbor in the state.

“When the whale population was lower, you primarily saw them around Maui County, but now we see them everywhere. In fact, just less than 10 years ago you hardly ever heard of them in Hilo Bay - that’s changed.”

Humpback whales have proven to be more than just a draw; the program has ignited other interests and opportunities for those who participate.

“It gets people more involved in other ocean-stewardships issues,” says Brammer. “Some of our volunteers have gone on to work with monk seals, sea turtles and the ocean in general.”

The good news is there is still one more chance to get involved later this month.

Brammer says site leaders and volunteers are needed on all islands for the March 28 count. Organizers anticipate there will be 60 sites in all, including 23 on Oahu.

“Hawaii is unique with our humpback population, and to be able to go to shoreline locations is very special,” says Brammer. “It’s a fun activity for residents and visitors, and it provides important population and distribution information on humpback whales around the Hawaiian Islands.”

For information on the next sanctuary ocean count, visit http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/involved/ocwelcome.html or call:

Oahu:397-2651 ext. 253, or toll free 1-888-55-WHALE ext. 253

Hawaii: 1-888-55-WHALE ext. 253

Kauai: 246-2860

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