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Making it Count

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 24

In this episode, Cindy Among-Serrao from Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary talks about how citizen scientists help monitor and promote awareness about marine life — particularly humpback whales — during the annual Sanctuary Ocean Count.

Mother and calf humpback whale pair swimming in Hawaiian waters

Mother and calf humpback whale pair swimming in Hawaiian waters. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where humpback whales go to breed, mate, and nurse their young.


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I’m Abby Reid. What follows are excerpts of a conversation I had with Cindy Among-Serrao, the coordinator of the Sanctuary Ocean Count at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Each winter, from approximately December to May, a portion of the North Pacific humpback whale population migrates from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm waters of Hawaii to breed, give birth, and nurse their young. The Sanctuary Ocean Count is a fun and important citizen science project that was initiated to provide whale-watchers with the opportunity to observe humpback whales in their breeding grounds, and conduct a yearly shore-based count during the peak breeding season, which is in January, February, and March.

But I’ll let Cindy tell you about it.

Cindy Among-Serrao diving

Cindy Among-Serrao, the coordinator of the Sanctuary Ocean Count at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, scuba diving at one of her favorite dive spots, Honokōhau Harbor on Hawaii Island.

CINDY AMONG-SERRAO: Aloha everyone. So, Let me start off, I’m a local girl born and raised in Hawaii. And I always loved being in the ocean. I was always a water baby and loved doing anything ocean-related, whether it’s surfing, snorkeling, scuba, and just other ocean-related activities. And I guess from that my love and respect for the ocean was derived. Here I am now with the NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary as the Ocean Count Coordinator.

So the Sanctuary Ocean Count is a signature outreach and Citizen Science project that the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary hosts annually. Ocean Count serves to promote public awareness about humpback whales, the sanctuary, and shore-based whale-watching opportunities in the Hawaiian islands. It also offers the community a chance to document and tally humpback whales from the shoreline. It’s held on the last Saturday of January, February, and March each year, which is considered the peak of whale season in Hawaii.

Not only has Ocean Count proven to be a fun volunteer activity for residents and visitors, but it also helps to provide important information like an increase or decrease in observed numbers of humpback whales around the Hawaiian islands from year to year.

The value of the ocean count also lies in its 23 years of continuous anecdotal data, and now may be used by sanctuary researchers to correlate with other research happening in the sanctuary and in the islands, including with their acoustic studies.

So our project has over 60 designated Ocean Count sites that are all across the islands of Oahu, Hawaii, and Kauai. And there is a similar effort that is also done on the island of Maui with the Pacific Whale Foundation.

HOST: This sounded like a real whale of a project, so I asked her what a typical day for a volunteer is like, and who is involved in making it happen.

CINDY AMONG-SERRAO: So first, all of the volunteers register online. Registration is found online at oceancount.org. Super user-friendly website, as well as a registration form to sign up.

And then within a week of the event date our site leaders actually contact all of their volunteers registered for their site to give them a heads up at what time they’re meeting on the day of the Count, if they need any samples of things to bring to make them comfortable on that day, and just any other necessary information about that site they volunteered at.

Sanctuary Ocean Count volunteers

Sanctuary Ocean Count volunteers pose with a whale tail banner at Maili Point on the island of Oahu during the Sanctuary Ocean Count. Credit: Lisa Peralta

And so on the day of the event, data collection runs from 8 to 12 noon. And then once 8am hits that’s when the data collection starts.

So I’m the primary coordinator, but I do have a lot of help and support from fellow staff. Also, usually a University of Hawaii at Manoa Marine Option Program intern also helps out.

And then definitely a lot of help from the, my site leader volunteers. The site leaders are basically head volunteers that guide all the other volunteers at each designated Ocean Count site, just providing them information on what to expect on the event day, as well as provide the data sheets that they will be utilizing to notate the number of whales seen, as well as their surface — sea surface behaviors. They really help make this project a success.

And as for participants, we have participants from near and far that come to volunteer for our Ocean Count events. It is a family-friendly event and we welcome all to come and participate and count some whales.

HOST: Up to this point we’d been talking a lot about whales. So I asked her if other marine life is tallied during the Count, too.

CINDY AMONG-SERRAO: Right, so, it is called the Sanctuary Ocean Count. So we definitely want to get an array of what other marine species or species seen at the shoreline that our volunteers do see. Some people are lucky enough to see Hawaiian monk seals, they’re just either lounging on the beach near them. Very commonly visitors or volunteers see the Hawaiian green sea turtle. And then other people are so good at identifying seabirds, and just a variety of different marine life. I know some people are in great areas where they actually are able to see, I think, sting rays in the near water. And one time people even notated they saw a bunch of flying fish.

You may not always see whales at your sight, so it does help if there’s other marine life that you can kind of notate down.

HOST: As the interview began to wind down, Cindy shared a Hawaiian phrase that summed up the essence of the Count.

CINDY AMONG-SERRAO: I do love this phrase: “It’s a kākou thing." So kākou means pretty much everybody, inclusive. And basically it’s just that it takes everybody to get one idea to move forward. It’s not just a one-person job, it’s for everybody. And issues like humpback whales getting research protection, and just, supporting and reducing their threats is definitely a bigger picture involving a lot of people and not just one person

It’s a kākou thing. [Laughter.]

HOST: It was obvious that the Ocean Count meant a great deal to Cindy on a personal level. So I asked her what coordinating the Count meant to her.

CINDY AMONG-SERRAO: It’s important to me because it allows me to encourage ocean stewardship among the residents of Hawaii and of course its visitors. We do get a lot of visitors, so it’s important to do that as well. I also do it for the love of whales and the many enthusiastic volunteers who help us count these magnificent marine mammals. There’s just something so rewarding when you see volunteers on the day of the event just get really excited after they’ve seen their first humpback whale. Or maybe even when they see a whale breach, which is what everyone wants to see or hopes to see. It’s that happiness about helping people be more aware of humpback whales in our Hawaiian waters that really encourages me to keep coordinating on.

HOST: To learn more about the Sanctuary Ocean Count, or any ocean-related subject, visit our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov. And subscribe to our podcast in your podcast player of choice. And please, leave us a review on iTunes. It will really help us reach more listeners.

A child looks for marine life during the Sanctuary Ocean Count at Magic Island in Honolulu, Hawaii. Credit: Alicia Piavis
Did you know?

The Sanctuary Ocean Count isn’t the only outreach program that Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has to offer. Ocean awareness training, community events, and lectures are just some of the ways the sanctuary connects with the community.

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