How to keep the whales happy
After the recent brouhaha over the interisland Superferry operation, I can't imagine there is anyone in Hawaii who isn't aware of our state's winter whale population.
However, as Jeffrey Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary told me this week, "We shouldn't focus on just one vessel, all vessels using these waters must be responsible."
He pointed out that November is when thousands of humpback whales begin to converge on our offshore waters. And because they may stay around until May, all of Hawaii's ocean users should review the guidelines promoted by the sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
To help recreational and commercial boat operators learn what they can do to reduce their chances of collisions with whales, as well as to avoid stiff fines for law violations, these organizations provide a series of free workshops on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island.
On Oahu, there will be a workshop this Tuesday at the Humpback Whale Sanctuary Office, above the Satellite City Hall in Hawaii Kai from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A second workshop will be held on Wednesday at Kapolei Hale from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. For other workshops, please contact Walters at (808) 282-0155.
At these workshops, the Sanctuary's marine mammal response coordinator, Ed Lyman, will give tips on how to spot whales, present a new statewide whale-density map and cover what boaters can do should they encounter a net-entangled whale.
He will also review the information in a new brochure listing safety guidelines that boat operators and other ocean users can use to protect themselves as well as the whales.
It would appear from current statistics that the protection the humpbacks have been given over the years has paid off rather well.
Prior to commercial whaling in the 1800s, it was estimated that some 15,000 humpbacks cruised the North Pacific, but as late as 1995, according to one estimate, there were only about 2,500 to 3,000 humpbacks visiting our islands.
By 2001, the official estimate of the total North Pacific humpback population had grown to 6,000 to 10,000, with perhaps as many as 5,000 coming to Hawaii.
This year the estimate has been made that up to 10,000 humpbacks will winter in our waters, albeit not all at once, as some will come and leave earlier than others.
Does this rise in the estimated population by some 33 percent in just a dozen years explain the fact that while the number of boat/whale collisions reported in the past 20 years has averaged two per year, there have been six in each of the past two years?
The number of registered recreational boats in Hawaii has only gone up about 12 percent, that's not likely the problem. However Walters may have another answer.
"Perhaps the whales have learned to be less skittish," he suggested. "With the whalers long gone, they may not see our boats as a threat."
Now that's a scary thought.