Whales, boats vie for space off Hawaii

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (8/25/01)
By Ray Pendleton

Experts often use the phrase, "It's not a question of if - it's just a question of when," in reference to potentially disastrous events.

We've heard it used about earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and even traffic collisions. But now some experts are using the phrase when they speak about "whale strikes" - collisions between ocean-going vessels and whales.

A couple of weeks ago, the Hawaii Ocean Safety Team - which is made up of commercial, governmental and recreational ocean users - invited all who were interested to attend a meeting at the U.S. Coast Guard Base on Sand Island to discuss the potential for such collisions and possible solutions to the problem.

After attending that meeting, it would appear to me that while the potential for whale strikes will certainly grow larger, win-win solutions may be difficult to come by.

From the perspectives of the three panelists - Naomi McIntosh of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary, Jim Coon of the Humpback Whale Sanctuary Advisory Committee, and Greg Kaufman of the Pacific Whale Foundation - with the combination of increasing numbers of whales and vessels, both vying for sea room in Hawaii's offshore waters, whale strikes are nearly inevitable.

It is presently estimated that Hawaii's whale sanctuary is the winter home to some 3,500 to 5,000 humpbacks who mate, give birth and nurse their calves here.

It is further estimated that because of their protected status, the whales' numbers are growing by about five to seven percent each year.

With an increase in tourism and general commerce throughout the islands, commercial shipping and tour boat operations are also on the rise. And, studies have shown that as the numbers and speeds of vessels increase, whale strikes become more frequent and more deadly.

According to one study, most lethal or severe injuries to whales have involved ships over 250 feet long traveling 14 knots or faster. Such speeds are commonplace now for most ocean-going vessels.

Soon the problem may be compounded in Hawai`i by the introduction of a new, high speed inter-island ferry service. Such vessels ride above the water on hydrofoils or pontoons and can reach speeds of about 40 knots.

It doesn't take a particularly vivid imagination to picture the kind of damage that would result in a collision between a vessel moving at 40 knots and a comparatively stationary 40-ton whale - to the animal, the ferry, or its passengers.

In five reported collisions in the Sea of Japan between high speed jetfoil ferries with what were thought to be whales, both damage to the vessels and injures to the passengers aboard them were recorded.

So, in Hawai`i, where much of the offshore waters have been designated a whale sanctuary and even approaching these animals within 100 yards is illegal, it becomes rather difficult to imagine humpbacks and high speed ferries coexisting.

Prohibitions may be needed during the December-to-June visits of the whales, or perhaps better technology will be found to determine individual whale locations.

Whatever the case, the whale sanctuary is planning to hold a workshop sometime next year to study the issues.

Last week's Column ~|~ Water Ways Archives

HoloHolo Hawai`i Ocean Sports News