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HALEIWA — On Saturday, the ocean waves rolled in at Pua‘ena Point. Stand-up paddleboarders and surfers dotted the water, and members of the Hawaii Army community sat in the sand, binoculars in hand, surveying the horizon.
“Blow!” announces site leader Brandie Markos.
A humpback whale has been spotted taking a breath.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Hawaii, annually conducts its Sanctuary Ocean Count project during the last Saturday of the first three months of the year.
These months are the peak of humpback whale season in the islands, which runs between November and April. During the count, volunteers monitor the humpback whales migrating to Hawaii, the only U.S. location they use for mating, birthing and nursing their young.
“(The count) is intended to be a snapshot of the sightings and behaviors, and fosters awareness of humpback whales,” said Cindy Among-Serrao, this year’s project coordinator.
The last day to volunteer this year is March 25. More than 900 people have already registered this year for the count. Volunteers participate in the count on Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai. On Oahu, there are more than 20 different sites designated for whale counting. Each year, the Outdoor Recreation Center at Schofield Barracks assists NOAA in recruiting volunteers for the count.
Sharon Sanchez, a recreation specialist at ODR, said the center has been partnering with NOAA for at least four years.
“We feel that we are able to educate people by doing this program,” she said. “It is important to have internal as well as external partnerships.”
Sanchez recommends joining the count during January and February, as the whales tend to start leaving by the end of March, though there have still been rare sightings.
Volunteers of all ages, resident or non-resident, are welcome to participate. Interested parties can register as a volunteer or a site leader. Volunteers work in groups of two or three, recording the number of whales and their behaviors in 30-minute increments. The site leaders receive additional training, and are responsible for more duties during the count, such as instructing volunteers about observing the whales.
This is Markos’s second year participating in the count. As the endangered species monitor for Sea Engineering, Inc., she registered for the count to get official training on whale observation. In addition to being an ocean lover, she said this would help her gain more knowledge.
“It’s great, I really enjoy it,” said Army spouse Juanita Terrell, who volunteered for the count with her children.
Terrell said she was interested in whales and this would be the closest she could get to seeing a whale.
“(Today) I’ve seen a breach (whale launching out of the water),” Terrell said. “That was amazing – just to watch something come out of the water that big.”
Sgt. 1st Class Paul D’Veney, a production control noncommissioned officer with Company B, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, volunteered with his wife and daughter to the count. D’Veney’s daughter, Cali, is in the Girl Scouts, and came to earn her whale-watching badge.
D’Veney said people need to pay attention when spotting a humpback whale from the site. He said seeing a “puff” out of the water confirms “you’re not just seeing things or a wave playing tricks on your mind.”
“You see one you get excited,” he said. “Plus we’re on the North Shore, and it’s always beautiful here. It’s a win-win.”
This is one of the few times he has been able to visit the beach while stationed in Hawaii, aside from unit physical training.
Once rare, endangered
According to the NOAA website, humpback whales were listed in the 1970s under the Endangered Species Act. In 1992, Congress established the sanctuary, and the first Sanctuary Ocean Count project was conducted in 1996. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries supports humpback whales through various programs, lectures, workshops and publications.
In a 2016 press release by NOAA Fisheries, nine of the 14 designated humpback whale populated areas have been deemed “recovered.” Hawaii is one of these areas. Among-Serrao confirmed that even though humpback whales in Hawaii are no longer on the endangered species list, they still receive federal and state protection. Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the “take” of marine mammals, defined on NOAA’s website as including, but not limited to, killing, capturing or harassing them.
“Though no longer endangered, the continuing threats to humpback whales include entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear, disturbance, and strikes from vessels,” Among-Serrao said.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count Project posts the number of counted whales and calves from each of the three days on hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/.
The next count is scheduled for March 25 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Call the Outdoor Recreation Center at 655-0143 to register. The cost is $10 for those participating with the center, to offset the costs of supplies, support, and other miscellaneous program expenses. The deadline to register with them is at close of business the Wednesday before, which is March 22. The staff recommends that you bring binoculars, sunscreen, a chair, drinks and snacks.
For more information, go to the website at sanctuaryoceancount.org. The most up-to-date sighting information can be found at hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/. As this story was published, the online registration was not available, andhttp://firstname.lastname@example.org volunteers may register for the count by emailing email@example.com or calling 725-5923.