Honolulu Star Bulletin 11/16/02)
By Ray Pendleton
For Hawaii's recreational boaters, the news that humpback whales are already being spotted in our waters means it's time to make a shift in safety concerns.
Since last June, through this month, being prepared for encounters with hurricanes has been foremost in most boaters' survival planning.
But now, as the Pacific humpback whales begin arriving from their summer home in the Arctic, offshore boaters must again review their plans for avoiding direct contact with these mammoth aquatic visitors.
Not surprisingly, avoidance is the cardinal rule of caution for both hurricanes and whales, as getting too close to either can prove deadly.
And, as the number of humpback whales here increases to as many as 6,000 in the next few months, avoiding these 40-ton animals can seem not only difficult, but often undesirable. Somehow, getting eyeball to eyeball with these gentle-appearing giants has great appeal for many boaters.
In this regard, it is important for all offshore boaters to remember that most of our waters are a part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Within its boundaries, whales are protected by federal laws and breaking those laws can be expensive.
And of course, it's more than just the threat of a $10,000 fine. Boat operators must remember that female humpbacks often come to Hawaii's warm waters to give birth and to nurse their calves. If a boat inadvertently comes between a calf and its mother, it could become a major disruption to them both and could be life-threatening.
Accordingly, any disruption of a whale's normal behavior can be detrimental and is therefore against the law. And, these "disruptions" include a wide variety of actions.
For instance, just causing a whale to change its direction or its speed can be interpreted as a disruption. It can also mean causing a whale to use escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater course changes, underwater exhalation, evasive swimming patterns, or the abandonment of a previously frequented area.
For these reasons, it is illegal to approach them any closer than 100 yards -- one football field -- in any way.
Still, many boaters ask, what if a whale approaches you? Most authorities recommend bringing your boat to a full stop, shutting down the engine and allowing the whale full right of way. Once the whale moves away, they recommend slowly increasing the distance between your boat and the whale until you are beyond 100 yards.
What's important is to keep your boat's speed to a minimum and to avoid physical contact. Such contact could be hazardous to both the whale and your vessel.
In inclement weather, when a boat operator often has limited vision, it is suggested that boats be run at reduced speed to avoid collisions. Humpbacks can only swim about 20 mph for brief periods -- three to six mph is their normal speed -- so faster moving vessels are always a threat.
In an area as large as the humpback whale sanctuary, boat operators are depended upon to be self-policing and to report any vessel being operated in violation with the law by calling the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.
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