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 Hawai‘i to engage in breeding activities. Hawai`i'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 Hawai`i.
Humpback whale populations are still relatively unknown. In an effort to provide a relative approximation of humpback whale numbers and distribution patterns locally over the years and to raise awareness of the species, the Sanctuary sponsors community events such as the Sanctuary Ocean Count.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count was initiated as a means to provide Hawai‘i residents and visitors with the opportunity to observe humpback whales in their breeding grounds by conducting a yearly shore-based census during the peak breeding season. Although the census does not claim to provide scientifically accurate results, it serves as a tool to supplement 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 serves to promote public awareness about humpback whales, the Sanctuary, and shore-based whale watching opportunities.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count is held concurrently on O`ahu, Kaua`i, and Hawaiʻi Island. By assisting in the count, volunteers will be helping to monitor the number of humpback whales and other marine mammals around our islands and ensure their health and safety for generations to come.
The first count was conducted in February 1996 on O'ahu, with approximately 150 volunteers. In 1999, the Big Island was added to the effort. Kaua'i began participating in 2000 and Kaho'olawe 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.