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Maui whale count may allow ‘small number’ of volunteers at future surveys

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Typically an activity that draws hundreds of volunteers, the Pacific Whale Foundation Great Whale Count on Maui will again be modified this year due to COVID-19. 

Only trained site leaders will be able to participate in the first count Jan. 29, but the following surveys on Feb. 26 and March 26 may reopen to “a small number of general volunteers.” 

“We want to keep safety as the top priority,” Jens Currie, a foundation scientist, told Maui Now today. “We were hoping January would be the first time we could have people back.”

The annual events gather public volunteers to count whales from shore in order to provide a snapshot of trends in relative abundance. Humpback whales migrate in the winter to Hawaiian waters to mate, calve and nurse young. 

Currie said that usually about 100 people participate at each survey, where site leaders tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior. However, the foundation has not been able to include the general public since the pandemic shuttered nonessential activities and businesses in March 2020.

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Maui’s Great Whale Count coincides with The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Count on O’ahu, Kaua’i and Hawai’i island. A news release Friday said that the Ocean Count will modify its Jan. 29 event to only allow site leaders as well.

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February and March surveys for all islands will be re-evaluated for a small amount of volunteer participation and announcements will be made by Feb. 15 and March 15.

“This will be dependent on multiple factors including, but not limited to, state/county guidelines, site access permissions, and safety of all participants,” the release said.

Supported by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the counts promote public awareness about humpback whales, the organization and shore-based whale watching opportunities.

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The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

The peak of whale-watching season off Maui is typically mid-January to March, according to Pacific Whale Foundation.

Mike Plochocki of New York took a recent whale-watching trip and said hardly five minutes went by without a sighting.

“In many instances this included breathtaking breaches, often relatively nearby the boat,” he said. “This whale-watching experience was one of the most memorable moments of my life.”

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