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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 12:11 p.m., Friday, March 10, 2006

Boat with 70 children aboard hits whale

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

MA'ALAEA, Maui — A Pacific Whale Foundation vessel on a whale-watch cruise with about 70 schoolchildren aboard collided with a humpback whale calf yesterday off South Maui.

No one was hurt in the collision, but the baby whale was bloodied, according to witnesses. Greg Kaufman, who heads the Pacific Whale Foundation, said no one saw the calf and its mother before the pair surfaced under the 65-foot Ocean Spirit just before 10 a.m. as the vessel was headed toward Kaho'olawe at a speed of 15 knots.

Jane Mori, a fifth-grade teacher at the Carden Academy of Maui, said 32 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders from the Pukalani school were on the boat along with a group from St. Joseph's School in Makawao. "We were watching whales in the distance for some time and we were just starting to cruise around to look for more whales when a mother and calf just popped up right in front of the boat. All of a sudden there was this grinding noise and we looked off the back of the boat and all you saw was blood over the water," Mori said.

She described the impact as a jolt. "It felt like we hit a rock, like we were on a reed but we were out in the middle of the ocean. It was horrible," she said.

No one was thrown to the deck or hurt, Mori said. "A lot of the children were crying and the adults were shaking. It was pretty devastating," she said.

NOAA Fisheries staff went out later in the day to look for the whales and reported the calf was injured on its pectoral fin and head, but that it appeared to be "swimming and acting normally," according to spokeswoman Wende Goo.

Federal authorities are investigating the collision and continue to monitor the injured whale, Goo said.

Kaufman said males "escort" whales were nearby at the time of the collision, indicating the mother-calf pair may have been under pursuit and trying evade aggressive suitors.

"We've seen more and more situations where mothers with calves swim toward boats when they are being pursued by males, and this was one of those unfortunate situations where the whale misguessed where the boat was heading," he said.

Kaufman said the mother and calf were seen swimming away and exhibiting normal behavior in the immediate aftermath of the strike, which he described "as a little bump."

The vessel sustained damaged to its rudder and was out of commission today.

An estimated 5,000 humpback whales visit Hawai'i annually to socialize, mate and calve in the Islands' warm, shallow waters. The majority of whales arrive by mid-December and most leave by April.