Time to watch out
Just as Oahu's motorists have had to relearn to share our roadways with the buses after the strike, December is when Hawaii's boaters must relearn to share our waterways with some equally large obstructions -- Pacific humpback whales.
These huge, endangered animals left us early last summer to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic. But from now until June, they'll be spending their time in our warm Hawaiian waters mating, giving birth and nursing their calves.
As an estimated 5,000 humpbacks presently call Hawaii their winter home, our federal and state governments formed a partnership in 1997 and established the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
This 1,400-square-mile sanctuary is cooperatively managed by staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Its boundaries are spread around the state, with a total area comprised of a number of noncontiguous and comparatively shallow coastal areas around the main Hawaiian Islands -- the same coastal waters favored by recreational boaters.
The sanctuary's management recognizes that Hawaii's people depend on resources within the sanctuary for ocean sports and ocean-related industries that have been estimated to be worth some $3.8 billion in annual revenue.
In fact, it conducted a study that showed an estimated 390 jobs and $27 million are generated statewide by commercial whale-watching tours alone.
Still, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of federal and state laws that all boaters must obey with regard to our visiting humpbacks.
And with fines of up to $10,000, there is no question that compliance with these laws is in every boater's best interest.
First and foremost, boat operators are not allowed to approach a whale closer than 100 yards under any circumstance.
Even if a whale unexpectedly surfaces nearby, boat operators are expected to move their vessels slowly away after coming to a complete stop to observe the whale's right of way.
The catch-all section of the prohibitions for boaters states that it is unlawful to disrupt the normal behavior or prior activity of a whale by act or omission.
Such disruptions may include causing a whale to change directions or speed, or to take escape tactics, or taking a prolonged dive, making underwater exhalations, or making evasive swimming patterns.
Other boat-caused disruptions could be interrupting breeding, nursing or resting activities, or coming between a whale and a calf, or causing the whale to shield the calf by tail-swishing or other protective maneuvers.
Causing a collision between a vessel and a whale would be the most drastic disruption of all. And with full-grown whales weighing some 40 tons, it would most likely be a drastic disruption to most boats as well.
To avoid such collisions, boaters must be especially cautious when glare, darkness or sea conditions reduce visibility. Reducing boat speed is recommended, as humpbacks normally cruise at a leisurely 3 to 6 mph.
Because these whale-related laws cover such a large area -- within 200 nautical miles of shore -- sanctuary officials depend on boat operators to be self-policing and to report any vessel that is in violation of the laws by calling the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.
For more information on the Humpback Marine Sanctuary, you can visit its Web site at www.hihwnms.nos.noaa.gov.
See the Columnists section for some past articles.
Ray Pendleton is a free-lance writer based in Honolulu.
His column runs Saturdays in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.