MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - With a few snacks, beach chairs, record sheets and binoculars, volunteers sat high above the base at the Coast Guard-owned tower at Pyramid Rock Beach, scanning the surrounding bay. The quiet broke briefly as a volunteer excitedly pointed to a humpback whale poking its head out of the water. Just as suddenly as it came, the creature disappeared beneath the waves. Volunteers noted this activity in their records for the annual 2014 Sanctuary Ocean Count project.
“The big breaches were interesting, they were jumping all the way out of the water,” said volunteer Kimberly Hitchcock, of Kailua.
Hitchcock said the best part about volunteering for the whale count is “being able to climb all the way to the top of (the tower at) Pyramid Rock (and) get the best view of the entire base. You always see it and you want to go up there but you (aren’t allowed).”
On Feb. 22, 2014, from 8 a.m. to noon, volunteers at various sites throughout Hawaii counted humpback whales and specific behaviors, recording their findings for the project.
Jordan Ching, the 2014 Sanctuary Ocean Count project manager of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said the counts occur during the last Saturday in January, February and March, which NOAA considers the season’s peak.
The project, coordinated through NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, monitors the endangered humpback whale, which migrates to Hawaii between November and April.
Ching, Kauai programs coordinator Jean Souza, and their staff coordinate with representatives at 60 designated sites across three islands, providing supplies and volunteer site leader training.
Volunteers of all ages are welcome to participate, and they don’t have to be Hawaii residents. Interested parties can register as a volunteer or a site leader. The website reported an average of 2,000 volunteers annually.
“The Sanctuary Ocean Count is a nationally-recognized program that received an award as best government volunteer program in the country.” Ching said. “The Ocean Count is a great way for the sanctuary to interact with the community. We also get tourists from the U.S. mainland and all over the world interested in humpback whales. I can’t stress enough (how) this project would not be possible without (volunteers). The project is a really fun and engaging way to collect data from the shorelines.”
Ching explained that two volunteers share one record sheet, monitoring and tallying how many whales they see and how many times they perform certain behaviors, such as pectoral fin slaps. Because the whales are a far distance away, Ching said volunteers should do their best to avoid counting the same whale twice.
On Oahu, there are more than 20 different sites designated for whale counting. Two sites are aboard MCB Hawaii: Atop the Coast Guard-owned tower at Pyramid Rock Beach and at Mokapu Point near Kaneohe Bay Range Training Facility, both restricted areas.
“(The whale count) would take a lot of money and helicopter time if it weren’t for the volunteer effort,” said Todd Russell, a natural resources manager at the Environmental Compliance and Protection Department. “I think people are just in awe of whales. There’s something magical about them. It puts people in touch with nature. It helps you realize that the ocean is home to (many creatures) and whales really bring that home.”
Russell helps NOAA with coordinating volunteer arrivals aboard the base. All whale count volunteers at MCB Hawaii must attend a safety brief at Fort Hase Beach with a Base Safety Directorate representative.
“The location is amazing,” said Nara Jirik, a NOAA volunteer site leader at the Pyramid Rock Beach site. “Marine Corps Base Hawaii is one of Hawaii’s most pristine resources. It’s a privilege to have access to it. The view from Pyramid Rock is breathtaking. When you combine that with the amazement of whale watching, your day is brilliant. Witnessing whale behavior is purely a simple joy. It allows you to take a break away from the hustle and bustle of life (to) enjoy the natural wonders our environment provides.”
Jirik’s responsibilities included informing her volunteers of meeting places and times, as well as appropriate gear and attire.
“This experience has allowed me to gain knowledge about the humpback whales and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary and has introduced me to a new group of exciting people,” Jirik said. “There appears to be a high number of whales in the area which is encouraging.”
The day of the count, Jirik and her co-site leader, Erin Bishop, taught the volunteers how to observe and record the whales while keeping track of the 30-minute time increments employed throughout the session.
“We’ve been really lucky with weather,” said Bishop, who tallied 19 whales by 9:45 a.m.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to see the whales and take in some sun,” said volunteer Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Nicholas, a Navy diver, from Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1.
Five-year volunteer Lori Domingo of Honolulu remarked this past weekend, the whales were “stealthy” and “cruising (at) such a slow speed.”
Heidi Hirsh, of Honolulu, volunteering for her second year, said she appreciates NOAA’s efforts for the whales, and was grateful to the base for allowing the volunteers aboard.
“It’s really nice to see the population doing very well,” Hirsh said.
According to the NOAA website, humpback whales have been listed as an endangered species since 1973 under the Endangered Species Act. In 1992, Congress established the sanctuary, which supports humpback whales through various programs, lectures, workshops and publications. The first Sanctuary Ocean Count project was conducted in 1996.
“I encourage everyone to take a time out and look out at our beautiful surroundings and enjoy it,” Jirik said. “You may even see some whales.”
To register for the last 2014 count, occurring March 29 from 8 a.m. to noon, go to the website at www.sanctuaryoceancount.org.