Boat-whale collision being investigated

A glancing blow by a breaching, endangered humpback whale against the side of a 60-foot whale-watch-ing boat off Kaua’i Tuesday afternoon appears to be accidental, but an investigation is ongoing, a federal investigator said Thursday.

“This appears to be an accidental strike, but that will be determined by the investigating agent,” said Mike Killary, a supervisor and assistant special agent in charge with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement division on O’ahu.

The whales are endangered and are protected by federal law. Scientists estimate there remain only 7,000 humpback whales in waters of the North Pacific.

The whales come to warm Hawaiian waters for breeding and calving purposes in the winter months, when watching their activities becomes big business for tour-boat operators.

The investigation of the Tuesday incident has been conducted by Vic Honda, an agent with NOAA’s investigation division in Honolulu, Killary said.

Killary said it appears the whale was not injured by the impact against the boat’s hull, and none of the passengers aboard the ship were hurt.

In what appears to be another accidental bumping, Killary said a whale bumped into a boat off Maui recently.

Killary said he believes both incidents are isolated, although “there are more whales in the area” that could lead to more boat-bumping incidents.

“You have a migratory pattern, so there would be an increase of whales in the area,” Killary said.

The North Pacific stock of humpback whales feeds in northern waters in the summer. During the winter months, they mate and calve in waters off Hawai’i, western Mexico, and the islands of southern Japan.

The whales can be seen in Hawaiian waters from September to June.

In the bumping incident Tuesday, a 60-foot whale-watching boat was returning from an excursion, and

was traveling at 15 knots when the whale breached in front of the craft, Killary said.

“We interviewed people and the captain, and they were traveling in when the whale breached in front of them, and there was a glancing blow,” Killary said.

Following the impact, the captain “chopped the throttle” to halt the spinning of the propellers to prevent any possible injury to the whale, Killary said.

“As far I can tell, (based on a report Honda submitted to NOAA officials), there were no injuries,” Killary said.

“People on the boat waited and saw the whale breach behind them, and they returned to port without incident,” Killary said.

The names of the captain and company he or she works for were not immediately available.

The whale glanced off the boat around noon, but Killary said he didn’t immediately have access to information on where the boat and whale were when contact was made or which port the whale-watch boat returned to after the incident.

The circumstances of the Maui incident are similar to the Kaua’i incident, Killary said.

“The captains did the right things as far as we can tell,” he said.

“They stopped, checked out the whale, made sure everybody on board was OK, came back to port, and reported the incident.”

There also were no reports of injuries to the whale or boat passengers in the Maui incident, Killary said.

Related to the whales, the yearly NOAA-sponsored count of humpback whales will start off next weekend.

On Kaua’i, the whale counts will be done on Jan. 28, Feb. 25 and March 25 by trained volunteers, said Jean Souza, the Kaua’i program coordinator for NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary program.

NOAA leaders will lead training sessions for volunteers at the NOAA office at the Kukui Grove Executive Center in Lihu’e on Jan. 26, Feb. 23 and March 23, Souza said.

Those wishing to pre-register for the sessions can call 246-2860, Souza said.

Volunteers with binoculars usually position themselves on coastal areas to count whales and monitor their activities. The data helps scientists better understand the behavior of the whales, Souza said.

“Whale counts are ways to increase the community’s awareness of the endangered whales, and to promote responsible behavior and stewardship of the whales and marine animals,” Souza said.

The yearly count on Kaua’i has been done since 2000, and with more interest by members of the public in protecting the endangered marine species and the ocean, more volunteers are anticipated to come out for this year’s whale count, Souza said.

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