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Whale Season arrives for Hawaii’s recreational boaters

Humpback whales off Maui
Humpback whales off Maui
Ray Pendleton

With the official passing of Hurricane Season in Hawaii, December 1 is also considered the official start for the influx of those giant marine mammals – the Pacific humpback whales – into the Islands’ warm, shallow waters.

The humpbacks return each winter to breed, give birth and to nurse their calves. And although their numbers have risen from about 5,000 a decade ago to some 10,000 today, they are still considered an endangered species. As such, both state and federal laws protect them and approaching them closer than 100 yards is illegal.

From a recreational boater’s standpoint, it should be obvious that any close encounter with a whale measuring up to 45 feet long and weighing some 40 tons would be extremely hazardous, and not just to the whale.

Still the most common question from many boaters is, “What if a whale doesn’t know the rules and approaches my vessel within 100 yards?”

As this can be a likely scenario – particularly in the waters between Maui and Lanai where it’s often called “whale soup” – officials at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary advise boaters to slow down to a least 15 mph (13 knots), or to even stop until it is safe to increase the distance from the whale.

The Sanctuary also notes that causing any disruption of a whale’s normal behavior can be an illegal action. Merely making a whale change its speed or course can be considered disruptive, and particularly if the whale is forced to use evasive tactics by making a prolonged dive, use evasive swimming patterns, or abandon its previously frequented area.

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.