- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006


Greg Kaufman says his whale-watching boat was doing everything by the book: cruising below 13 knots and staying 100 yards from any visible humpback as a crew member scanned the ocean atop a lookout.

Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Pacific Whale Foundation vessel from running over a calf that surged from underneath March 9.

It was one of seven confirmed encounters in the current breeding season, which is drawing to a close but has set a record for such accidents. Between 1975 and 2005, there were 33 reported strikes involving whales and boats among the islands, with no more than three in one single season.

Environmental groups call the trend alarming, but researchers hope it has more to do with a rebound in the endangered species’ population than with negligent boaters.

“It’s some combination of increasing number of whales and just boats and whales in the same area at the same time,” said Jeff Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The humpback population roaming the North Pacific, estimated at about 10,000, is thought to have been growing at an annual rate of about 7 percent since the mid-1990s. As more whales swim to Hawaii from icy feeding grounds off Alaska, Canada, Russia and Japan, boaters are navigating around about 1,000 calves born in Hawaiian waters each year.

About 50 ships are involved in whale watching in Hawaii, carrying 300,000 passengers a year, mostly from Maui.

Calves pose a greater danger because they need to surface more often — about every three to five minutes. But researchers say the mothers, who mated here last year, are getting used to the attention and also edging closer to the vessels.

“It’s kind of like driving in a school zone,” said marine biologist David Schofield of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Humpbacks, which were placed under international protection in 1966, are also shielded under federal law. Boat drivers need to follow an “approach rule” that instructs them to travel slower than 13 knots, never leave the helm, post a lookout and stay 100 yards from whales.

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