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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 28, 2003

Whale-watch safety stressed

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of people go on whale-watching tours each year in Hawai'i, many returning from their ocean journeys with video and an experience like no other.

But as the humpback whale population continues to recover under federal endangered species protection, the likelihood of more encounters between whale and boat is inevitable, officials say.

Members of the whale-watch industry said the activity continues to be safe despite Thursday's death of a 3-year-old boy on a cruise off Diamond Head.

"What a tragedy," said James Coon, owner of Maui's Trilogy Excursions. "But it's not an indictment on the whales or the boats. It's just a really rare accident. The industry has such a safe record."

The details of Thursday's accident remain unclear. Authorities said the boy, Ryker Hamilton of Virginia, died after a humpback whale apparently slapped its tail near the boat, causing the boy to hit his head.

Meanwhile, workers in the industry were buzzing about the incident Friday as the cruises left their ports as usual.

Jim Scarola of Cari, N.C., said he heard about the tragedy, but it didn't stop him from taking the Cinderella Yacht on a cruise to Molokini Islet out of Ma'alaea on Maui.

"It was vacation as usual," said Scarola, who said he had a wonderful time spotting a whale and getting up close to a pair of dolphins.

Whales are unpredictable animals, so close encounters between boats and whales certainly do occur. Three collisions were reported in the first months of this year, during the end of the past whale season, which typically runs from December through April. Two collisions were reported the previous year.

In February 2001, a woman on a whale-watching boat off Kaua'i broke her knee when a young humpback whale breached and landed on the stern of the boat.

Although fewer than five collisions are reported each season, officials assume the number is low because operators are reluctant to report, said Naomi McIntosh, manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

McIntosh said more whale encounters are inevitable as the whale population grows. With that in mind, she said, the sanctuary held a workshop in September to discuss whale-boat collisions.

"It wasn't just for the whales, but for the passengers as well. There is always the potential for collision that would be harmful to both whale and passengers," she said.

A report on the workshop is being finalized with recommendations for boat operators. "Unfortunately, we didn't get around to addressing (passenger safety) issues," she said. "But there should be heightened awareness (among boat operators)."

Humpbacks travel from their feeding grounds off Alaska to Hawai'i every winter, where they breed in the warm Island waters. It has been estimated that the whale-watching industry is worth $19 million to $27 million to Hawai'i's economy.

There are no laws that address the safety of children on boats, except a requirement that there be enough life preservers for child passengers.

Hannah Bernard, vice president of the Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, said people, especially those with children, need to be wary of the potential dangers when they enter the realm of the humpbacks.

While the whales are regarded as gentle animals, she said, there are times when they can get rowdy. The business of mating is their main concern and it can be a rough affair — a time when they are aren't paying that much attention to boat traffic, she said.

But Bernard, a whale scientist and naturalist who has led thousands of whale watches in Hawai'i, California, Alaska and Mexico, said the risks are still relatively minimal.

"Considering how many people whale-watch, this is clearly a freak accident," she said. "There's far more danger getting in your car and driving to the whale-watch than taking the whale-watch. I'll take my chances on the water any day."

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.