Q&A on the 2020 Sanctuary Ocean Count

Photo credit: Bruce Parsil/NOAA

This past weekend, visitors to Hawaii may have been confused to see rows of people with binoculars sitting along the shore in lawn chairs, eyes focused outward on the blue horizon.

Mystery solved: January 25 was the first day of the 2020 Sanctuary Ocean Count, in which volunteers around Hawaii take part in a citizen science effort to track the numbers and movements of humpback whales.

Cindy Among-Serrao is the Ocean Count Coordinator for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and she took some time to explain the importance of the Ocean Count to our understanding of whales and to the work of the sanctuary and the Foundation.


So what is the Ocean Count and how does it help the mission of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary?

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) Ocean Count is a signature outreach and citizen science project that started in 1996. Ocean Count serves to promote public awareness about humpback whales, the sanctuary, and shore-based whale watching opportunities in the Hawaiian Islands. The count is conducted three times per year during peak whale season and provides a snapshot of humpback whales sightings from the shoreline. The 2020 event dates are scheduled for January 25th, February 29th and March 28th and is held concurrently on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island at designated Ocean Count site locations.

The mission of HIHWNMS is to protect humpback whales and their habitat through a wide range of activities in conservation, research, education, and outreach efforts to enhance public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of humpback whales and the Hawaiian Islands marine environment. The Ocean Count aligns perfectly with the mission of HIHWNMS allowing everyone both near and far to participate in our project to help increase awareness of these magnificent mammals and how we can help to protect them.

How does the Ocean Count actually work? You can’t possibly count all the whales around Hawaiʻi, can you??

Prior to the event day anyone interested in participating in the Ocean Count project can register online at oceancount.org. Registration closes the Friday, one week prior to the event date. There are designated site leader volunteers who will contact participating volunteers for their site with any important site specific information that folks should know prior to attending the event.

A typical Ocean Count event day starts by participating volunteers meeting at their designated Ocean Count site locations prior to the 8:00 am data collection start time. It’s then that they will meet their site leaders who will give a data collection briefing and guide them throughout the duration of the event. Data collection runs from 8:00 am till 12:15 pm where participants will tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior on the provided data sheets. Weather conditions are also notated on the data sheet and since it is an Ocean Count we also encourage noting down any other species you might see during the count.

It’s very unlikely that we would be able to count all the whales around Hawai‘i but we are still able to provide a snapshot of humpback whale sightings from the shoreline. Also the data gathered by volunteer’s supplements information from other research activities, and is an important component of understanding trends in whale behavior and abundance.

What is your favorite part of the Ocean Count?

My favorite part of the Ocean Count is when I go and visit multiple sites on the event days and as soon as a whale breaches or any whale activity is being observed the volunteers get so excited. It’s truly a great feeling when the volunteers are all cheering with joy and excitement while participating in our Ocean Count events. Not everyone realizes that you are able to see humpback whales from the shoreline and don’t need to be on a boat and this opportunity does just that.

But even when there are no whales being sighted by volunteers they still manage to have fun and have a positive response thanks to the new knowledge they have gained on humpback whales with thanks to their site leaders. Plus it’s a great way for folks to get outdoors and enjoy the beautiful coastlines around Hawai‘i.

How can people help or get involved, both in Hawaiʻi and on the mainland? 

Anyone interested in participating in our 2020 Ocean Count events can find out more about the project and register online at oceancount.org. The Ocean Count project is a family friendly event and we welcome kamaʻāina and visitors from all over to come and participate.

Volunteering for our project is a great way to support our efforts and you can also support by purchasing a 2020 Sanctuary Ocean Count t-shirt, tank top or sweatshirt. Any profits accrued help to support future Ocean Count events and the mission of HIHWNMS. Every year is a unique design dedicated to the Ocean Count project. There are a variety of t-shirt styles and multiple colors to choose from and you can check it out at https://www.bonfire.com/2020-sanctuary-ocean-count/.