Humpback whales thriving in Hawaii as annual count begins
By Diana Leone
Naomi McIntosh isn't tired of whales yet.
Despite more than a decade at the helm of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, she is still impressed at their grandeur.
A majority of the humpback whales that will winter in Hawai'i are here now. They will breed and bear their young in Hawai'i's protected waters through March or April before returning to North Pacific waters.
The whales are doing well, said David Mattila, the sanctuary's science and rescue coordinator and a
co-author of a 2006 study that concluded that about 10,000 humpbacks winter in Hawai'i waters.
The study also calculated that the leviathans are increasing their numbers by a healthy 6 percent to 7 percent each year.
At that rate, there now could be 12,000 or more humpbacks here each winter, McIntosh said.
Tomorrow and again on the last Saturday in February and in March, dozens of volunteers will fan out to an estimated 60 sites along the shores of O'ahu, Hawai'i and Kaua'i for the sanctuary's annual whale count. The count provides key population and distribution information on humpback whales around the Hawaiian Islands. (The Pacific Whale Foundation will conduct its own whale count on Maui on Feb. 27.)
Full-grown humpbacks are about 45 feet long and weigh up to 70,000 pounds. Whale calves, which are born here a year after conception, are about 13 feet long and 3,000 pounds.
In late December, McIntosh watched a group of eight male humpbacks competing for the attention of a female off Maui.
"We saw head lunges, tails coming out of the water, a lot of movement at the surface," she said. "There were 'trumpet blows' " heard clearly from the boat she was in. "It was quite dramatic."
That's just the kind of show visitors and local residents are hoping for when they book the whale-watching tours that generate about $20 million a year for Hawai'i's economy.
"Given what we've seen so far, we think it will turn out to be quite a dramatic year for whale-watching," McIntosh said.
DANGER FROM DEBRIS
Ann Rillero, public relations spokeswoman for the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui, agreed.
But more whales means greater potential for interaction with humans and our debris.
Three times in December a sanctuary response team went to assist whales entangled in fishing line, said Ed Lyman, who leads the team.
One of the animals apparently pulled off the lines and swam free before the team could reach it. The team — with assists from the Coast Guard — was able to cut hundreds of feet of line off the other two whales, Lyman said.
The entanglements on Dec. 1, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day highlight how fishing debris is one of the biggest risks facing humpbacks in Hawai'i waters, Lyman said.
The other is speeding boats.
The sanctuary warns boaters to slow to 10 mph in waters where whales are likely to be present and to stay at least 100 yards away from any whale.
A main reason the humpbacks winter in Hawai'i is to give birth to their young, which like any youngsters are less adept than their parents at staying out of harm's way.
Mattila advises boaters to think of Hawai'i waters in the winter as analogous to a school zone when class lets out.
"Drive carefully. It's a nursery," he said.
In the past two years, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent federal agency of the sanctuary) reported 12 violations of humpback whale approach zone regulations — including approaches by swimmers and nonmotorized and motorized watercraft.
A commercial whale-watching vessel that was charged with five violations of the 100-yard rule last season admitted to them and agreed to pay a $30,000 civil penalty.
McIntosh pointed out to The Advertiser that once the whales were highly active near the boat she was in "we couldn't leave."
"We were in neutral the whole time" until the whales moved safely away from the boat of their own accord, she said.
Those who aren't on a whale-watching tour can take advantage of chance encounters while boating — and appreciate the opportunity, she said.
When you encounter humpback whales in the ocean, McIntosh said, "It tells you these waters are alive."