Each winter, from approximately December to May, a portion of the endangered North Pacific humpback whale population migrates from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm waters of Hawaiʻi to engage in breeding activities. Hawaiʻi's pristine marine environment is considered to be one of the most important breeding, calving, and nursing grounds for humpback whales in the North Pacific. For that reason, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was dedicated to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaiʻi.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count was initiated as a means to provide Hawaiʻi residents and visitors with the opportunity to observe humpback whales in their breeding grounds by conducting a yearly shore-based count during the peak breeding season. The count is conducted three times per year during January, February, and March and provides a snapshot of humpback whale sightings from the shoreline. Participants tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior during the survey. The data supplements scientific information gathered from other research activities. The count also provides some information on how whales use in-shore waters on an average peak season day. The Sanctuary Ocean Count is held concurrently on Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, and Hawaiʻi Island. By assisting in the count, volunteers will be helping to monitor humpback whales and promote public awareness about humpback whales, the sanctuary, and shore-based whale watching opportunities. The first count was conducted in February 1996 on Oʻahu, with approximately 150 volunteers. In 1999, Hawaiʻi Island was added to the effort. Kauaʻi began participating in 2000 and Kahoʻolawe began participating in 2002. To date, the Sanctuary Ocean Count covers 60 sites on four islands, with an enlistment of over 2000 volunteers. In the future, the Sanctuary hopes to expand this project to other islands.
Registration for the Sanctuary Ocean Count begins each December.