Sunday, July 4, 2004

200 small whales linger
in Kauai’s Hanalei Bay

About 200 melon-headed whales entered Hanalei Bay on Kauai yesterday morning and stayed into the night in what biologists said was unusual behavior.

The whales, swimming about 100 yards offshore, did not appear to be in distress and did not beach themselves.

"For them to be near shore is extremely uncommon," said Brad Ryon, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist. "They usually stay away from the shoreline."

Lifeguards at Hanalei Bay said the melon-headed whales were first spotted at the east end of the bay near a popular surfing spot called Pine Trees at 7:30 a.m. yesterday.

The whales stayed tightly packed together all day, sometimes becoming quite active and sometimes just slowly circling. They made no attempt to swim toward the beach, nor did they make any effort to swim toward the open mouth of the bay, the lifeguards said.

"The big mystery is figuring out why they came into the bay," Ryon said.


A team of NOAA veterinarians and marine biologists and specialists from the Hawaiian Islands Stranding Response Group arrived about 7:30 p.m.

Volunteers camped on the beach overnight to ensure that no whales beach themselves or come too close to shore. The team of specialists and veterinarians planned to return to study the whales this morning.

To help the whales leave the bay, specialists will keep humans away from the group so there is no added pressure for them to come closer to shore. Ryon said they could also use a method called acoustic driving, which consists of tapping boats to move them out of the bay, but he hopes they will leave on their own.

Melon-headed whales are known to travel in large groups around Hawaii, but because their natural habitat is far offshore, they're difficult to study, Ryon said.

Two melon-headed whales died last year after they beached themselves off Hauula.

The last time there was a mass sighting of melon-headed whales close to shore was about 40 years ago, Ryon said. About 30 whales were found stranded on the beach in Hilo Harbor.

Melon-headed whales grow to about 9 feet in length and usually swim at least 20 miles offshore. Pods of melon-headed whales usually range from 100 to 500, with a maximum of about 2,000.

Ryon said it's too early to say if the whales entered Hanalei Bay because of Navy Rim of the Pacific exercises now being conducted.

The Navy had six ships northwest of Kauai in operations that involved the tracking of underwater simulations with sonar at 8 a.m. yesterday. When they received a call from the National Marine Fisheries Services in the afternoon, the ships ceased all sonar operations as a precautionary measure, said RIMPAC spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Greg Geisen.

"There's always a potential," said Ryon of the sonar activity. "We need to study an animal or get more facts before determining any cause. There's many potential reasons for strandings."

Star-Bulletin reporter Tony Sommer contributed to this story.


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