Respect the whales while they visit
It's December so it's time for Hawaii's boaters to watch out for our visitors from the north, and I don't mean Santa and his reindeer.
I'm talking about humpback whales, and just in case there are some recreational boaters who missed Gene Park's informational article in the Star-Bulletin a couple of weeks ago, let's go over some of the basic rules boaters must abide by from November through May.
To begin with, it should be obvious that an adult Pacific humpback whale is nothing any boater wants to run into. Measuring some 45 feet long and weighing in at around 40 tons, it would certainly have an overwhelming size advantage over all but the largest of our islands' recreational vessels.
For most boaters, any such close encounter would surely be a losing proposition.
And there's the fact that humpbacks are still considered endangered, even though their numbers have risen locally from about 5,000 10 years ago to perhaps 10,000 today. As such, they are protected under state and federal laws and approaching them closer than 100 yards -- one football field -- is illegal.
Of course, this rule always brings a question from boaters: "But what if it's the whale that does the approaching?" And that can be a likely scenario in our near-shore waters.
According to officials at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the best tactic is to slow down to at least 15 mph (13 knots), or to even stop until it is safe to increase your distance from the whale.
Responsible boaters here have long understood that a grown humpback's top speed is only about 20 mph, so particularly when the operator's vision may be impaired by wind, rain, glare, or darkness, decreasing boat speed is imperative.
A catch-all phrase for illegal action by boaters is "causing any disruption of a whale's normal behavior." And the sanctuary's handbook for ocean users lists a wide variety of disruptive maneuvers.
Merely making a whale change its speed or direction can be considered disruptive, and particularly if the whale is forced to use evasive tactics such as making a prolonged dive, using evasive swimming patterns, or abandoning its previously frequented area.
As we know, humpbacks come to Hawaii's warm, shallow waters to breed, give birth, and nurse their calves. So any disruption, such as bringing a boat between a mother and her calf, would be considered a major violation of the law.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is charged with enforcing these laws, but because the sanctuary covers such a large area, it must depend upon all ocean users to monitor boater compliance.
For this reason boaters are asked to report any observed whale harassment or approach-rule violations by calling NOAA's hotline at 800-853-1964.
For additional information on Hawaii's humpback sanctuary, call 1-800-831-4888, check out its Web site at www.hihwnms.nos.noaa.gov, or write to 736 S. Kihei Road, Kihei, HI 96753.