1,010 HUMPBACK WHALE SIGHTINGS TALLIED DURING THE GREAT MAUI WHALE COUNT

March 2, 2009, 12:45 PM HST · Updated March 2, 5:21 PM
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A total of 1,010 humpback whale sightings were recorded during the Great Whale Count held over the weekend on Maui.The numbers were down from the record 1,726 whales recorded last year, in part because of reduced viewing conditions caused by rain, and a possible two-year breeding cycle that is believed to boost the count every other year.The highest count was at Puu Olai which recorded 225 whales, followed by McGregor Point with 222, and Launiupoko with 160.Officials with the Pacific Whale Foundation say that based on the observance, we have not yet hit the peak of whale season.

The 2009 Great Maui Whale Count took place today, Saturday, February 28.In addition to the whales, one monk seal, which had hauled itself out onto the beach in Kahana, in West Maui, was also reported.

The volunteers worked from 13 counting sites, along the south and west shore of Maui, in an area stretching from Makena Beach to Kapalua, and also on Maui’s north shore at Hookipa.

The volunteers, equipped with binoculars, compasses and data sheets, worked alongside Pacific Whale Foundation researchers and staff for a three hour window beginning at 8:30 a.m.

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“While the rain could be implicated in the lower counts that we saw at the West Maui locations, we still had lower counts than last year in areas that didn’t have rain,” said Greg Kaufman, President of Pacific Whale Foundation. Kaufman was stationed with 14 volunteers at the top of Puu Olai, the small hill located behind Makena Beach State Park.

As noted earlier, in 2008, there were 1,726 sightings. In 2007, counters at all of the sites tallied a total of 959 whale sightings; In 2006, there were 1,265 humpback whales counted; In 2005, there were 649 humpback whale sightings recorded; In 2004, rainy weather caused a disruption in the counting; In 2003, there were 815 sightings tallied; and in 2002, the counters reported 673 sightings.

In looking at recent years’ data, Kaufman noted a two year cycle: in years ending with an odd number, the numbers of whale sightings was lower; in years ending with an even number, the numbers of whale sightings were higher.

“It’s possible that there is a two-year breeding cycle here, with a larger number of mature females ready to breed in the ‘even’ numbered years, and a smaller number of mature females breeding in the ‘odd’ numbered years,” Kaufman said.

“We have seen patterns of this type in Australia, and I’ve heard about something similar from researchers working off the coast of Africa,” said Kaufman.

Of the 1,010 whales counted this year, 104 – or about 10% — were calves.The whales were most active between 10:20 and 10:25 a.m., followed by the period between 11:00 and 11:05, when the counters observed the largest numbers of surface active behaviors.

The Great Maui Whale Count is scheduled for time of year that is considered the peak of the season in Hawaii — a time when the maximum numbers of humpback whales of all ages and sex classes are found on Maui. “It’s when you have the most calves, juveniles, adult males and adult females,” notes Kaufman. “However, the peak of the season can shift by one or two weeks in either direction.”

“Based on what we observed today, I would say that we have not yet hit the peak,” he said. “I would expect the relative proportion of calves and the average pod size to be a bit higher if we were at the apex of the season.”

An estimated 18,000 humpback whales live in the North Pacific; about 60% of that population is believed to come to Hawaii each year. The majority are found off the coast of Maui, in the area bordered by the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Moloka’i and Lana’i.

The whales come to Maui to mate, give birth and care for their young, and are known for their intriguing and acrobatic behaviors, which include breaching, tail slapping and singing underwater.

The count helps to raise public awareness about whales and whale research, and supplements data about whales gathered by Pacific Whale Foundation and other researchers.

(Posted by Wendy OSHER © 2009)

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