The Pacific Humpback whale-watching season on Kaua’i is getting under way and is anticipated to get into full swing in February and March when more of the federally-protected whales migrate from the Pacific Northwest to Hawai’i to breed and calve.
The arrival of more whales to Kaua’i means the whale-watching experience will be significantly enhanced for those on shore and those on tour boats, say Jean Souza of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary on Kaua’i and representatives for tour boat companies on Kaua’i.
Whales migrate to all parts of Hawaii, but it seems, the peak months for watching them in abundance on Kaua’i are February and March, Souza said.
“Based on observations from people so far, it seems that there are more whales at this time of the year than at this same time last year,” Souza said.
The whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Scientists estimate the whale population numbers between 3,700 and 5,000.
Schylar Frederick, a representative for Blue Dolphin Charters, said whale sightings have jumped since the end of last year.
“We are seeing them practically seven days a week,” Frederick said.
As to whether the other boat companies are having as much luck spotting whales, Frederick said: “I think so, they should be, they operate the same time we operate.”
Blue Dolphin, based at Port Allen Harbor, is one of the island’s biggest commercial boat companies offering scenic tours to the Na Pali Coast and whale watching tours.
A representative for Capt. Andy’s, another large tour boat company that operates from Port Allen, said that “we have seen tons of whales on our tours.”
Claire Seaver, a spokeswoman for the Na Pali Explorer, based in Waimea, said whale-watching “seems better this year.”
Seaver said visitors want to see the grandeur of the Na Pali Coast, but they want to see one of nature’s rarest mammals.
“People want to go see the Na Pali Coast and see the whales, because they are in the know about the whales being endangered,” Seaver said.
More people may sign up for whale watch tours between October and June, when the whales are in Hawai’i, but only happen “if there is more advertisement,” she said.
She said her company offers special rates to island students to educate them about the whales and the importance of protecting them.
On a first-come-first-serve-basis, the company charges each student from kindergarten to the 12th grade only $10 for a two-hour boat tour, Seaver said.
The company offers the special tours twice a day on Tuesdays only, between January and March, Seaver said. The company has offered the special tour package since it opened six years ago.
“It is a way to give back to the community, and the kids love the boating,” Seaver said.
The company also offers regular scenic tours to the Na Pali Coast that include whale watching and tours geared specifically for whale-watching. For the 3 1/2-hour tours, adult tickets are $79 and $59 for youths.
The company also conducts a special 5-hour tour to the Na Pali Coast that includes snorkeling. The ticket price for adults is $118 and $70 for youths five to 12 years of age, Seaver said.
Representatives for some of the boat companies said their businesses also offer combustion scenic and whale-watching tours to the Na Pali Coast and whale watching tours and that patronage “was mixed.”
Souza said it was her sense that more people are opting for the whale-watching treks.
“I sense that visitors are more about informed about the humpback whales, maybe because of nature channels and the overall availability of information, including what we provide,” Souza said.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary of the National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration sponsors yearly whale watch counts to help scientists involved with recovery of the whales.
Hawaiian Islands scheduled onshore watch-watch counts on Kaua’i, Oahu, Big Island and Kaho’olawe yesterday. Two other counts are planned for the same islands on Feb. 22 and March 29.
For visitors wanting the optimum whale-watching experience from boats, Souza suggested they ask companies whether there are specific tours for whale-watching, whether a naturalist is on board to provide information about the whales and whether the boat is equipped with a hdyrophone to pick up underwater sounds from the whales and broadcast them to people on the craft.
During the whale-watching season, more humpbacks congregate in waters off Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kaho’olawe than off any other island, Souza said.
Kaua’i has the third highest concentration of the whales, and they can be found off any part of Kaua’i, Souza said.
Last month though, people reported many whale sightings on the southeast side of the island and on the north shore, Souza said. “They saw a lot of tail slapping and breaching.”
Whales are usually seen within three miles from shore and are found within a 600 foot depth, she said.
She also said she was not aware of any collisions between boats and whales.
In Hawai’i, it is illegal to approach a whale closer than 100 yards by sea and 1,000 by air, according to Hawaiian Islands.
Souza said people can get just as good a view of the whales from shore, Souza said.
“Some of the most popular places for whale-watching are at the Kilauea Lighthouse, the Kapa’a Overlook and the Ninini Point Lighthouse,” Souza said. “But really, you can see them from any point on the island. And they are out there now for people to enjoy.”