On Christmas Day, Ryker Hamilton, 3, sat aboard the boat American Dream during the ill-fated whale-watching cruise with, from left, his parents, Ryan and Renee Hamilton, and grandmother Sandra Hamilton.

Lawyer blames captain
for child’s tour-boat death

A passenger's video shows a jolt
as the boat nears a whale


Wednesday, December 31, 2003

» Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Todd Offutt on Friday had not determined what happened in the whale-watching cruise accident that killed a boy died on Christmas. A Page A1 article in yesterday's morning edition implied that he had characterized it as a collision.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at

An attorney for the family of a 3-year-old boy who died during a whale-watching tour on Christmas alleges that the ship’s captain did not slow or change course to avoid colliding with a humpback whale.

Ryker Hamilton.

Ryker David-Lee Hamilton, of Norfolk, Va., was being held by his father, Ryan Hamilton, aboard the 76-foot vessel American Dream in waters off Diamond Head, according to the Hamiltons’ attorney, Rick Fried. Ryker hit his head on the ship’s railing after his father lost his footing when the American Dream struck a whale, Fried said.

His statement conflicts with the results of a preliminary Coast Guard investigation, which cleared captain Monroe Wightman of any wrongdoing and said he maneuvered the boat to avoid the mammal. But Coast Guard officials also said they would continue to investigate.

Mike Watson, President of Aqua Marine Hawaii, Inc., which does business as Dream Cruises Hawaii said this morning that, “we are dealing with a tragic freak accident.

“We’re appalled with the loss of the poor boy on Christmas afternoon ... it’s just heartbreaking,” he said.

Fried said that he interviewed more than a dozen witnesses who were on the vessel, and all have a similar story about the American Dream’s captain announcing a whale sighting from about 300 to 400 yards away but not slowing down or changing course before the collision.

“Clearly, there is no change in direction or speed of the vessel until the whale is struck,” Fried said. “According to American Dream’s own handouts, a vessel needs to stay 100 yards away from a whale.

“Sadly, if the company had followed their own rules, the little boy would be alive.”

Watson said, “obviously a plaintiff’s attorney is going to present any information he comes up with in a self-serving way.”

Fried released a video taken by a Georgia tourist aboard that he claims showed the collision.

The video shows the whale near the ship, followed by a loud sound and a spray of water into the air.

Later, the camera picked up the audio of a woman’s voice, identified by Fried as the victim’s mother, Renee Hamilton. In the video, the woman is heard saying, “Please move, please move, please move” before screaming, “Oh my God!”

Watson said he did get a chance to look at the video last night.

“To me it confirms what our captain had to say about a whale surfacing unexpectedly very close to the boat.”

He said he doesn’t know if there was a collision. He said the company’s own inspection of the ship hasn’t discovered any evidence of damage to the vessel.

Coast Guard officials said they are continuing to look at all the evidence.

“Some of the more than 50 eyewitness statements we’ll have or collect are pictures and photographs and video, and they may show different angles or different things that happened at particular times,” said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Offutt. “Our challenge is to piece this together and to try and reconstruct exactly what happened that day.”

Offutt had previously said the vessel carrying 75 passengers and crew was heading toward a pod of whales when another pod of whales surfaced next to the boat.

Offutt said the captain veered the boat to avoid the whales, in accordance with standard operating procedures.

On Friday, Offutt had described the incident as “a tragic accident. ... Some people might even chalk it up to an act of God.”

But, according to Fried, one witness said the captain was not watching the ocean when the collision took place because he had dropped a microphone and was busy looking for it.

“That’s something no one would make up,” Fried said. “And it fits. ... Why else wasn’t the captain looking?

“We’re very bothered by the initial reaction that this was an act of God.”

According to an Aug. 23 report prepared for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there have been 22 vessel collisions with whales reported in Hawaii between 1975 and 2003.

The report says there was an increase in incidents over time, with two incidents reported between 1975 and 1984, six between 1985 and 1994, and 13 between 1995 and 2003.

A likely factor for the increase was an increasing population of humpback whales over the past three decades, along with more vessels in areas preferred by whales, the report said.

The report was prepared by researchers with the Oceanwide Science Institute, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory.


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