Passengers scan the horizon off the coast of Maui searching for whales from the stern of Ocean Quest, a whale-watching boat operated by the Pacific Whale Foundation. Despite precautions, in the current whale breeding season, officials have reported a record number of entanglements, accidents or encounters with whales off the Hawaii coast. Below, a humpback whale breaches.
Whale collisions on the rise around Hawaii
A humpback resurgence might explain a record number of boat run-ins
GREG KAUFMAN says his whale-watching boat was doing everything by the book: cruising below 13 knots and staying 100 yards from any visible humpback as a crew member scanned the ocean atop a lookout.
Still, it wasn't enough to prevent the Pacific Whale Foundation vessel from running over a calf that surged from underneath on the morning of March 9.
It was one of seven confirmed encounters -- some likely fatal to the whale -- in the current breeding season, which is drawing to a close but has already set a record for the accidents. Since December, when thousands of humpbacks began arriving here from northern waters to mate or give birth, there have been 35 reports of whale entanglements, more than in all three previous seasons combined.
Environmental groups call the trend alarming, but researchers are hopeful it has more to do with a rebound in the endangered species' population than with negligent boaters.
"It's some combination of increasing number of whales and just boats and whales in the same area at the same time," said Jeff Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
The humpback population roaming the North Pacific, estimated at about 10,000, is believed to have been growing at annual rate of about 7 percent since the mid-1990s. And as more whales swim to Hawaii from icy feeding grounds off Alaska, Canada, Russia and Japan, boaters are navigating around some 1,000 calves born in Hawaiian waters each year.
"As long as the population continues to get bigger, it's going to keep happening," said Joseph Mobley, a professor at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu who researches whales.
About 50 vessels are involved in whale watching in Hawaii, carrying 300,000 passengers a year, mostly from Maui. Between 1975 and 2005, there were 33 reported strikes involving whales and boats among the islands, with no more than three in one single season.
BABY WHALES pose a greater danger because they need to surface more often -- about every three to five minutes. But experts say the mothers, who mated here last year, are getting used to the attention and edging closer to the vessels.
"It's kind of like driving in a school zone," said NOAA marine biologist David Schofield.
Humpbacks, which were placed under international protection in 1966, are also shielded under federal law. Boaters need to follow an "approach rule" that instructs them to travel below 13 knots, never leave the helm, post a lookout and stay 100 yards from whales.
Kaufman said a boat captain was doing just that when a calf surprised everyone aboard the company's Ocean Spirit during an educational cruise for two local schools at Maalaea Bay, Maui. The case is being investigated.
"We were cruising along, on flat water, not a breath of wind out there, everyone looking for whales," said Kaufman, whose company is the largest in the state, with seven boats doing 10 daily trips during the winter. "No matter how many best practices we put into effect, when one surfaces directly under your boat, there's nothing you can do about it."
NOAA officials say they couldn't recall a boater ever being prosecuted or issued environmental fines in Hawaii for bumping into a whale.
In December 2004, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit over the death of a 3-year-old boy aboard a tour boat when it hit a humpback off Oahu. Ryker Hamilton, of Norfolk, Va., was on the 77-foot American Dream during a Christmas Day whale-watching expedition and suffered fatal head and neck injuries when he hit the handrail and deck.
Jeff Mikulina, director of Sierra Club of Hawaii, said he would like to see stricter enforcement of regulations and perhaps a limitation on the number of boats during the peak breeding season.
"We need to remember that we are the visitors here," he said.
Mobley said there's ongoing research on a sonar that would detect whales as far as five miles away. Initial tests have worked in calm waters, but the system may not work in heavy trade winds, which blow regularly in the islands. Propeller guards also could help reduce accidents.
Boat captains are required to notify NOAA officials of any accidents by calling a hotline. All but one of the seven whale collisions this season were reported, and at least three involved whale-watching boats.
It's unclear what happens to injured whales, which, despite their size, can quickly disappear, sometimes with fatal gashes and internal wounds. It's also hard to find 40-ton carcasses that can either sink or get eaten by sharks.
"Almost always we never find them," said Ed Lyman, who is in charge of NOAA's response team. "It's like a needle in a haystack."