Looking Out For Whales And Us

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - November 12, 2008
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A calf with deep cuts resulting from a vessel collision

It’s hard to imagine 45 tons of mass dancing in the Pacific Ocean, but during the months of November through May nature provides the unimaginable: a time when humpback whales return to our warm waters.

As many as 10,000 whales return each year, moving with amazing grace despite carrying a hefty load. Sadly, while these massive creatures seek sanctuary here, they sometimes encounter the unexpected.

“Last year, researchers found two calves and one adult with deep cuts consistent with vessel collisions,” says Jeff Walters, co-manager, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “Some of these events are avoidable.”

Whale-vessel collisions occur every year in Hawaii. It’s one reason NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is hosting several free public workshops across the state to educate boaters about safe boating practices around the endangered whales.


“These workshops give us a chance to meet with the boating community and to discuss collision avoidance and to keep collisions to a minimum,” says Walters. “The workshops aren’t required, but our target audience is those with motorized vessels.”

Walters says they typically see representatives from most tour companies, the Superferry, TheBoat, as well as operators of the ferry service out of Lahaina. “What we hope to see are more recreational boaters,” says Walters.

Boaters are educated about whale behavior and the guidelines for safe and legal whale watching. They are taught what to do when animals surface, breach or slap their enormous tails. They are also reminded of basic rules, including never leaving the helm, posting a lookout and always watching your speed.

“We try to teach them what to look for, like shadows in the ocean,” says Walters. “Reported cases of collisions have gone up. Last year, we had nine confirmed reports, the highest confirmed cases on record. Prior to that it was seven.”

Experts believe the increase in incidents is a combination of more collisions and more people reporting events.

“We’re actually moving away from calling them collisions and instead referring to them as contact incidents,” Walters explains. “Some cases are not actual collisions. In fact, in two of them last year, the boat was not moving and the whale tapped the boat. The boat operator was being safe and the whales weren’t injured, but he still reported the incident to us.”

Humpbacks are protected in Hawaii. Federal regulations prohibit approaching them within 100 yards when on or in the water. Those regulations apply to all crafts.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a canoe paddler, kayaker or motorized boat operator,” says Walters. “If you find yourself in an unexpected situation - say the whale surfaces - we recommend that you stay there and wait for the whale to move away. Of course, your safety is always first. If you find yourselves in the middle of a pod, quietly back out of there but remember any sudden change in the sound of an engine or splashing can startle the whales.”

The peak in whale sightings happens from January through March. Humpbacks congregate in ocean waters less than 600 feet deep throughout the Hawaiian Islands and are frequently encountered at or near the surface. The ultimate goal of the workshops is to provide education on whale watching safely and legally while still having an enjoyable experience.

“These workshops are not just for the whales - it’s for the safety of boaters,” says Walters. “Some of these animals are 45 tons, and when they collide with some of the bigger boats the result can resemble a car wreck. Passengers can get hurt, vessels damaged and the whales killed.”

Asimple workshop could make a life-saving difference.

Here is the link to the boater workshop schedule: http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa. gov/explore/safe_boating.html.

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