Friday, February 27, 2004

A 12-foot humpback whale swam beside the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Kittiwake on Wednesday outside Honolulu Harbor.

More whales
mean more close

A humpback bumped against
a Coast Guard ship on Wednesday

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Kittiwake had to persuade a 12-foot-long, several-ton humpback whale to leave its boat alone Wednesday a half-mile outside Honolulu Harbor.

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Comm. Todd Offutt said a whale calf started rubbing against the ship's hull about 8 a.m., prompting the crew to contact scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service for advice, "because at some point they were going to have to get under way."

Fisheries Service officials arrived about 10 a.m. and shooed the whale away with a noise-making water pump, he said. But "when they came back to the same mooring buoy" last night, the whale was there again," Offutt said.

Though less dangerous than three incidents this winter where boats encountered whales, Wednesday's incident shows the increasing need for Hawaii boaters to watch out for humpbacks, said David Mattila, science and rescue coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

A fishing boat in the same area also reported a young whale rubbing against its hull on Wednesday, which may or may not have been the same calf, Offutt said.

Federal rules require boaters to stay 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaii waters -- and not to move the boat if a whale comes closer unless it is an emergency.

More than 6,000 humpback whales winter in Hawaii, generally between December and May. Scientists believe the numbers are increasing as the endangered species recovers, raising the odds for more whale-boat encounters.

"Young animals are often more curious about objects in their environment," Mattila said of the whale that tried to make friends with the Coast Guard boat. "I've seen animals do that around icebergs and floating buckets."

However, if the youngster was born this winter, its situation may be more serious, Mattila said.

"It could be a calf separated from its mother."

A warning was issued to mariners to watch out for a young whale outside Honolulu Harbor, Mattila said, and researchers will be keeping an eye out for any further sightings.

Three other whale-boat encounters this winter include:

>> Three-year-old Ryker David-Lee Hamilton, of Norfolk, Va., died after his head struck a ship's railing on Christmas morning during a whale-watching tour off Oahu on the ship American Dream. Coast Guard and Fisheries Service investigations of the accident are pending, and neither agency would confirm whether it has determined that a whale hit the vessel.

>> A man was knocked unconscious Jan. 5 when his 18-foot fishing boat collided with a humpback off Kahului Harbor. He regained consciousness, brought his boat into the harbor and was treated for cuts on his head.

>> A second whale-ship collision was reported Feb. 8 off Puamana in West Maui.

Both nonfatal incidents remain under investigation by the Fisheries Service but not the Coast Guard.

Adult humpbacks normally measure up to 45 feet long and 45 tons, bigger by far than most recreational boats in Hawaii waters.

The best thing a boat can do in humpback waters is to go slow, said Christine Gabriele, a wildlife biologist studying whales off the Big Island.

A U.S. Marine Mammal Commission study indicates that vessel-whale collisions are much less likely to occur when vessels are traveling 17.25 mph or less. The study's findings also suggest that when collisions do occur at lower speeds, the damage to the vessel and the whale is usually much less serious.

Only 22 whale-ship collisions have been reported to the Fisheries Service between 1975 and 2003, said spokeswoman Delores Clark.

Usually, it is the boat's fault.

"There's a 1-in-10 million shot that a whale comes zooming out of nowhere and hits the boat," said Reg White, vice president of Paradise Cruise whale-watching tours.

A report on whale-ship collisions will be released later this year and used to focus educational efforts for the 2005 season, said Jeff Walters, sanctuary co-manager.

In the meantime the Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation is leading a whale-watching industry attempt to gather more data about near misses.

When enough data are collected on boat type, sea conditions, speed and other factors, "we hope to come up with a predictability model," said foundation President Greg Kaufman.

An industry group meeting next week on Maui also has drafted recommendations for how boats should be operated in the vicinity of whales.

Though there is a lot of tug and barge traffic among the Hawaiian Islands, their normal speed is 8 to 10 mph -- slow enough for whales to get out of the way, said Jack Laufer, a Matson Navigation Co. controller.

Based on recommendations from the sanctuary, Matson is routing its faster ships outside sanctuary waters that contain more whales, Laufer said.

Useful numbers and a workshop

>> To report a whale problem, call NOAA Fisheries at 800-853-1964.

>> To report a whale entangled in fishing gear or stranded on a beach, call 800-256-9840.

>> Workshop: Boaters and others interested in preventing boat-whale collisions are invited to a workshop on Maui Wednesday, sponsored by the Pacific Whale Foundation. The 6 p.m. meeting will discuss draft "Best Practices Guidelines" for operating boats and watercraft when whales are present and review a new whale-encounter reporting system. The meeting will be at the Ocean Science Discovery Center at the Harbor Shops in Maalaea. For more information, call Irene Bowie at 244-8385.


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