Each winter, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawai’i to mate and give birth. In Hawai’i, humpback whales are engaged in important social and behavioral activities. Approaching whales too close or fast may disrupt these behaviors and cause unnecessary stress to the animals.
In order to promote responsible whalewatching, Pacific Whale Foundation developed the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines. These guidelines build on current federal and state regulations, as well as scientific research.
Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation’s founder and Executive Director, annually hosts a public “Be Whale Aware” training program. The training is utilized as a way to share best practices that Pacific Whale Foundation has developed during three decades of whalewatching around Maui. As part of the November Making Waves lecture series, Kaufman presented the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines and results from Pacific Whale Foundation’s current humpback whale research.
Studies have shown that ship speed and size are major factors when it comes to ship strikes. A vessel traveling over 15 knots, for example, has an 80% chance of causing lethal injuries if it hits a whale. At speeds below 11.8 knots, the chances of a lethal injury drop below 50% (Vanderlaan & Taggart, 2007).
Pacific Whale Foundation’s “Researcher on Board” study in 2011 recorded a total of 2,464 humpback whale sightings. Of those sightings, 133 (3%) were surprise encounters. Findings from the study support the theory that vessel speed is important in avoiding collisions with whales. Pacific Whale Foundation recommends that all vessels travel no faster than 15 knots in Maui County waters during whale season.
The “Be Whale Aware” guidelines also suggest not approach whales directly from the front or behind, limiting viewing time with mom’s and calves to 30 minutes, and not having more than three vessels watching a whale at one time. Download a copy of the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines.
All ocean users are reminded that federal law prohibits approaching whales closer than 100 yards.
Pacific Whale Foundation has equipped its catamarans with Whale Protection Devices to guide whales away from propellers and running gear. Each Pacific Whale Foundation vessel is also required to post a red and yellow flag when the vessel is actively watching whales. The flag helps alert other boaters to slow down because whales are in the area.
This year, Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team will be working aboard the dedicated research vessel Ocean Protector to continue ongoing research to document humpback whales in the Maui region. Kaufman discussed that the study focuses on identifying ‘hot spots’ where it’s especially important for vessels to keep a watchful eye for whales and maintain reduced speeds.
Pacific Whale Foundation researchers will be photo-identifying individual whales and collecting data on age classes, gender (when apparent), pod compositions and group sizes of the whales encountered. Kaufman highlighted the importance of understanding which whales — males, females, calves, older whales — are likely to surface unexpectedly around boats. Knowing the answer to these questions will help greatly reduce the threat of ship-strikes in Maui County waters.