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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 11, 2004

Whale-boat incidents largely go unreported

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

When you start telling whale stories among Hawai'i boaters, the stories just keep coming — unless you're one of the federal officials charged with protecting endangered humpback whales. Then it seems that many folks avoid telling you about their encounters.

If you know of an encounter

To report an interaction with a humpback whale, call the National Marine Fisheries Service at (888) 256-9840.

That's a source of frustration for the officials, because they fear the lack of documented whale-boat collisions gives them an incomplete picture of how such interactions occur, and how they might be prevented.

"We know there are a lot of interactions that we just don't hear about," said Margaret Akamine, head of the protected species program of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The sanctuary has been studying the issue of whale-vessel collisions, and last September it held a three-day workshop on it, but the agency feels hampered by lack of information.

"Many incidents go unreported. People need to know who to call, but many of them may be unwilling to call a federal agency," said sanctuary manager Naomi McIntosh.

The issue gained new urgency after two recent whale-vessel encounters that resulted in a death and serious injury, which has rarely happened in Hawai'i.

Three-year-old Ryker Hamilton of Norfolk, Va., died after hitting his head on a rail during a Christmas Day whale-watch cruise off O'ahu. There are conflicting reports whether the Dream Cruises Hawai'i boat hit the whale.

Then, last week, Maui firefighter Sandy Parker, 27, was knocked unconscious when his 18-foot fishing boat struck a whale as he was heading from East Moloka'i to Maui's Kahului Harbor. He suffered serious head injuries and bruises.

An estimated 5,000 humpbacks visit Hawai'i annually, migrating from their summer feeding grounds off Alaska to socialize, mate and calve in the Islands' warmer coastal waters.

It is illegal for boats to approach within 100 yards of whales in sanctuary waters. Boaters and federal officials agree that most encounters are accidental, given the whales' unpredictable nature and the difficulty in spotting them.

Federal agencies are investigating the two recent incidents, but there are so many more, and they don't only involve speeding boats.

Champion outrigger canoe paddler Mike Judd said he was in a race off Hawai'i Kai about three years ago when a whale surfaced directly under his one-man canoe, lifting him and his canoe out of the water.

"I put my feet down on both sides of the canoe (standing on the whale's back). I looked down and it was a baby whale. Its mother was directly under it," Judd said.

Eventually, the whale submerged and Judd was able to continue the race without further incident.

Even stationary boats can be involved in whale incidents, as in a case off Kaua'i in 2001 in which a young whale leaped out of the water and landed on the back of a stopped whale-watch boat. A visitor aboard suffered a broken knee when the whale landed in her lap before sliding back into the ocean.

Hawai'i boaters commonly take evasive action to avoid hitting surfacing whales. Kaua'i accountant Patrick Ibbs recalled being in a sailboat off O'ahu's Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and having a mature whale surface just feet ahead of the boat, which was under power at the time.

"We stopped the boat and had to reverse to keep from hitting it," Ibbs said.

But for all the anecdotal reports and the lack of complete data, Hawai'i wildlife officials do not feel that whale-vessel interactions are a serious threat to the animals or to humans, McIntosh said.

"We're concerned about the risk to whales and the risks to passengers," but there are not really any firm guidelines on how to avoid interactions.

"These animals are unpredictable. Their behavior can be sudden. Generally, we need to be more attentive on the water."

McIntosh said her agency has looked into technologies such as forward-looking sonar that might warn boaters of whales near the surface, but added that it doesn't seem ready for prime time yet.

Both she and Akamine said many Hawai'i boaters seem to be wary of reporting cases to federal officials, for fear of being cited for improper behavior, or for fear of the establishment of regulations that will limit their on-water activities.

Neither has a good sense of how to reassure boaters, but both said they need more data to better understand the problem.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.