Where Whales Go For Romance

MidWeek joins the annual whale count, and from the look of things at Lanai Lookout, our fine spouting friends are doing quite well indeed

Friday - March 31, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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Whale counters were all eyes at the Lanai Lookout last Saturday
Whale counters were all eyes at the Lanai Lookout
last Saturday

Come to Lover’s Lane on Oahu’s South Shore, and bring the kids along, there’s nothing here they shouldn’t see. For this is a romantic playground for 40-ton humpback whales, who migrate to warmer Hawaiian waters from the Bering Sea to, in layman’s terms, have babies, nurse and make more babies.

Lover’s Lane is June Kawamata’s way of referring to this stretch of ocean fronting Lanai Lookout, just off the ribbon of Kalanianaole Highway between Hanauma Bay and Halona Blowhole. It’s a place she knows well. She’s been volunteering here as site leader for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Count since the program began a decade ago. And she’s become quite an expert on the ins and outs of all things humpback.

“The whole time they’re in Hawaiian waters they don’t eat,” she says. “They don’t eat at all because they have their reserve of food inside their blubber. They’re only down here to have ... a romantic holiday.”

As volunteers stream in for the 8 a.m. count, Kawamata offers warm doughnuts from Ken’s

Bakery in Waimanalo, gives new volunteers information as they sign in, takes pictures of frigate birds and, later on, talks to tourists and locals, who stop to see what’s going on. “You’re wondering what we’re doing,” she says to one passerby. “We’re doing a count for humpback whale sanctuary.” Just then she’s interrupted by the spotting of a whale’s blow about 12 miles out. She turns her attention back to the man, “Regardless of how far they’re out, we have to count them.”

Annual counts are organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and are held at more than 60 sites on Oahu, Kauai, Big Island and Kahoolawe on the last Saturday of January, February and March. The Pacific Whale Foundation runs an independent count on Maui.

Having a tail of a time
Having a tail of a time

Christine Brammer, Oahu program coordinator for the NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, says data collected by volunteers, although not completely scientific, will “give us a snapshot of what’s happening around those specific islands all at the same time.

“We hope over time we’ll be able to publish a report that gives us some information on what we found whether always exhibiting certain behaviors at one site and not at others, or maybe related to their population.”

North Pacific humpback whales, the type that winter in Hawaii, are protected by federal and state law, and have been on the endangered species list since its inception in 1973. Brammer says the humpback whale population fell from 15,000 in 1905 to fewer than 1,000 in 1966, when a ban on hunting humpbacks took effect. Today, they number approximately 7,000 to 7,500.

Of those, about 5,000 migrate to Hawaii, giving residents and visitors a unique viewing opportunity.

“Hawaii’s the only state in the U.S. where humpbacks breed and calve their babies,” she says. “Basically that’s why it was designated a marine sanctuary, because the habitat in Hawaii is considered critical to that species because it’s the only place in the U.S. that’s possible. It’s just a unique experience to share with the public.”

At Lanai Lookout on Saturday, 24 volunteers, including Kawamata and fellow site leader Hank Thoene, participated in the count. Volunteers recorded the number of adult whales and baby whales spotted and documented their behaviors. My counting partner Kelly Desha and I (she did most of the work while I was preoccupied with collecting information for what you’re now reading) tallied eight adult whales; two calves; one breach (jump); 32 slaps of pectoral fins, tails and heads; 60 blows and five fluke-up (tail-up) dives between 10:01 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., the period in which we recorded the most activity. The weather was such that Molokai and Lanai could be seen clearly across the channel. Earlier that morning, Maui, too, could be seen in the distance.

June Kawamata
June Kawamata

“I just counted seven blows right in a row,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Sparks says to his wife, Brenda, who’s recording the activity. The Sparks, recent arrivals to Honolulu by way of Yokosuka, Japan, have volunteered for each of the three counts this year. Brenda says they come both to help the NOAA and to meet the locals. “We move to so many places it’s nice to get around people that live here and grew up here and just kind of gets you into the community rather than just the Navy side of it,” she says.

For four hours on Saturday, the atmosphere was filled with expectation, mini disappointments and thrills. At one point Kawamata screams: “Ahhh! Breach! Way out there!” And the group, more used to seeing blows of water and the curving backs of whales, collectively “ooh” and “wow” each time a tail emerges from the water.

Although Saturday’s show didn’t produce phenomenal whale sightings, the regulars had their stories to share.

“Two years ago I saw a mother and a calf in this little cove here where the kayakers are, and she was teaching it to tail slap. They were here for half an hour. It was really pretty neat - up close,” says Bob Ubersax, the group’s “spotter,” who sends e-mails to the others to inform them of the whales’ winter arrival. “That same year I saw a whale do 13 breaches right down the coast there. Of course, no camera. ... I always keep a camera in the car now.”

Perhaps the most talked about event occurred last Sunday when a mother and calf treated the group to 45 minutes of up-close observation while the two frolicked right off the rocky shoreline. John Humphrey, who observes whales over coffee breaks at Lanai Lookout, says the whales were so close “you could have jumped off the front here and grabbed a hold of ‘em.”

For more information, hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov

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