When the state legislature upheld the full $20 million in funding for Hawaii Superferry last week, the opposition’s focus re-centered on the high-speed vessel’s potential effects on humpback whales.
Opponents of the high-speed interisland ferry say the boats have no way of avoiding endangered humpback whales and other marine mammals.
“Especially humpback calves,” said underwater photographer and retired physicist Lee Tepley. “They spend all their time just under the surface.”
Opponents of the $235 million project are outraged that there was never an environmental impact study done to assess the potential affects of the ferry. Backers point to the Whale Avoidance Policy, which spells out a number of steps taken by Superferry officials.
“There are a number of things,” said Terry O’Halleran, director of public affairs for Hawaii Superferry. “It has a relatively shallow draft for a vessel of its size, and there are no propellers.”
The four-story, football-field sized catamarans will be able to carry 900 people and 250 cars.
“During whale season, we are putting two additional crew members on the boat dedicated to looking for whales,” O’Halleran said. “They will have motion-stabilizing binoculars and, unlike a fishing boat, our lookouts are going to be on the bridge level, 45 feet above the water.”
“In clear weather, they could avoid whales on the surface by visualization, but they have no way of avoiding whales just under the water,” Tepley said.
In his homemade DVD, “Will the Superferry Kill Humpback Whales?” Tepley questioned the reliance on human eyes for a three-hour boat ride.
O’Halleran said whale watchers will be trained to understand and anticipate whale behavior.
“They say they are going to avoid whales by 500 yards, but there is no way they can do that without sonar,” Tepley said.
O’Halleran said he did not know offhand how long it would take for a ferry moving at full speed to stop or alter its course.
Initial plans called for Forward Looking Whale Avoidance Sonar, but a craft moving at 45 miles per hour, like the Superferry, would have to detect whales at 1,000 meters. That would take a sonar so powerful and detrimental to sonar-sensing creatures it qualifies as harassment, said Duane Erway of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee.
“And they are operating at night as well,” Tepley said. “That’s a whole new set of problems.”
O’Halleran said the first boat, scheduled to start service in July 2007, will depart Honolulu for Maui in the morning, return to Honolulu and then continue on to Kaua‘i, arriving in early evening. He said by the time the boat finishes its day back in Honolulu, it will be nightfall.
Superferry officials plan to change routes around Molokai and scale back to 25 mph in shallow water during whale season, where research indicates whales spend most of their time, O’Halleran said.
It will be the same in shallow water off of O‘ahu that the ferry will be navigating at night.
Tepley wants to see the ferry operate at 10-12 knots in shallow water.
“Whether or not that is financially attractive for their business plan remains to be seen,” he said.
Tepley’s video, made from mostly old footage, concentrates on the fact that whale calves spend the vast majority of their time on, or just below the surface. He said he sent it to Superferry officials, but O’Halleran said he had not seen it.
“We don’t want to hurt whales,” he said. “We are constantly investigating any technology solutions that might be available to help us with whale avoidance. The technology isn’t there yet.
“It’s an issue of trying to make sure that we’re educated on seamanship and all the solutions that we can bring,” he said. “We’re making sure we’ve got the most prudent whale avoidance policy (WAP).”
O’Halleran said Superferry officials submitted the WAP to the Sanctuary Advisory Committee and it was accepted unanimously.
O’Halleran, a Kaua‘i resident, used to sit on the SAC, and the fact that he left rubs some members the wrong way.
“I’m not sure if he thinks that it’s safe or not for whales,” Erway said. “He has a business background and my guess is this was a business decision.”
O’Halleran and others cite a University of Hawai‘i study that indicates that whale impact numbers are low in the area, though opponents say they studied cruise and cargo ships, which do not move at the speed of the Superferry.
Aside from the safety of marine mammals, opponents point to the danger of allowing farmers to move crops to and from the islands on the ferry, which could lead to foreign flora and fauna intruding on fragile ecosystems.
“Any regulation that there is, we will follow,” O’Halleran said.
Superferry officials will also abide by additional self-imposed restrictions, he said.
“Vehicles have to be clean and the tires can’t be muddy,” he said. “It will be the responsibility of the person bringing in the vehicle.”
Opponents also question the demand, considering recent airline price wars have one-way interisland fares of $39.
“Frankly, we are an alternative,” O’Halleran said. “But ours are all-inclusive prices — no taxes or extra fees.”
Passengers will pay $42 per person and $55 per vehicle each way for the estimated three-hour trip.
O’Halleran said Superferry offers a viable option for a Hawaiian family vacationing on another island.
“If you find the best airfare and car rental rate and compare them to what we offer, you’ll find (we offer) considerable savings,” he said.
O’Halleran also said the Superferry could benefit school field trips and sports teams.
“They can bring their bus on,” he said.
In the end, opponents are not opposed to the idea, just the execution.
“We want a safe Superferry,” Tepley said. “Safe for people and marine animals.”
• Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached at email@example.com, or 245-3681 (ext. 251).