An estimated 10,000 humpback whales are returning to the shallow, warm waters of Hawaii right now, and with them comes the coolest volunteer opportunity in the country.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) recruits roughly 2,000 volunteers each year to help with the Ocean Count, a three day initiative on three different Hawaii islands to monitor whale activity and provide important humpback population information.
Volunteers go to one of 60 lookout locations -- some as luxurious as the Four Seasons Resort on the Big Island and others as under the radar as the very cool Spitting Caves on Oahu -- and spend four hours watching the water.
It isn't. NOAA chooses three days in peak whale season (January-March) and volunteers are kept so busy that their results are reported every 15 minutes. Last February, volunteers at the Sharks Cove lookout point on Oahu spotted 13 whales between 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. ; they spotted 61 whales total in their four hours.
Volunteers are asked to distinguish between adult and calf whales and to record what types of behavior they witness, which means learning the distinction between breaching, tail slaps, blows, and pec slaps, among others.
Humpback whale populations are still relatively unknown and so the census -- while not scientific -- provides a relative approximation of humpback whale numbers and distribution patterns throughout the Hawaiian islands while also helping to raise awareness of the species.
The whales flock to Hawaii's waters every winter to breed, calf and nurse their young, and then return to the cooler waters of Alaska in the summers.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article overstated the number of islands on which the count will be conducted this year.