It’s that time again: Watch out for whales
A RECENT e-mail from a friend in Lahaina reminded me that it's time for my annual warning to boaters to watch out for whales.
"Just as the sun was setting off Kaanapali, a humpback breached no more than 100 yards from our boat," he wrote. "It was spectacular."
Undoubtedly, whatever the time of day, when something the size of a school bus explodes out of the water nearby, it will be spectacular. But the incident should also serve as a reminder to my friend and for all of Hawaii's recreational boaters that for about the next six months we will be sharing the ocean with some 5,000, or more, Pacific humpback whales.
And although the largest of those whales (60 feet long and weighing 45-50 tons) are substantially bigger than most of the boats in Hawaii, they are nevertheless a protected species and much of our offshore waters are part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
That means that within this 1,400-square-mile sanctuary, which is co-managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and our Department of Land and Natural Resources, there are rules in place to protect the whales, even though it could be the boater who is often more at risk.
It follows then that -- when breaking the rules can mean facing fines of up to $10,000, plus the possible destruction of one's boat and a loss of life -- following the rules is the only prudent course of action.
The humpbacks congregate each winter in our waters to mate, give birth and to nurse their young, so the underlying concept of the rules is for boaters to refrain from disrupting the whales' normal behaviors.
Sanctuary guidebooks define a behavior disruption as any act or omission that causes a whale to change direction or its speed, or to use escape tactics, to take a prolonged dive, to make underwater exhalations, or to use evasive swimming patterns.
Other possible boater-caused disruptions include interrupting breeding or nursing activities, or coming between a whale and her calf.
Of course, boaters can easily obey all of these rules if they follow the sanctuary's most basic rule of never approaching whales closer than 100 yards -- the length of a football field.
In the event that it's the whale that does the approaching, boat skippers are advised to come to a complete stop and then move slowly away after determining the whale's direction.
Skippers are also advised to reduce their boat speed when glare, darkness or choppy seas have limited their visibility.
For the enforcement of all these rules, NOAA must rely on Hawaii's boaters for assistance due to the sanctuary's large area. It therefore asks anyone witnessing violations to report them through its Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Humpback Marine Sanctuary should visit its Web site at www.hihwnms.nos.noaa.gov.
is a free-lance writer based in Honolulu. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com