Peak whale season means paying attention

With Hawai‘i’s winter humpback whale season in full swing, the state Department of Land and Natura Resources is asking boaters to be wary of the mammals to avoid possible collisions statewide.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Etiquette Campaign has created signs that are erected at the state’s small boat harbors and ramps.

The signs recap vessel-whale collision risks and remind boaters about the federal 100-yard humpback approach rule.

“We’re entering the peak period for humpback whales in our waters. From now through May all ocean users should remember to take extra precautions to avoid vessel-whale collisions and close approaches,” said Peter Young, DLNR chairperson, in a press release.

One vessel-whale collision has already been reported this season, and officials have evidence suggesting at least two more have occurred, states the release.

A collision, “self-reported” by the vessel operator, occurred off Kaua‘i in late December.

Reports of two humpbacks observed off Maui with injuries consistent with a vessel strike were also received by NOAA agency partners in late December 2006.

NOAA officials are currently reviewing the facts and circumstances surrounding these incidents.

There were six confirmed vessel-whale collisions reported in the 2005-2006 season , with at least two resulting in serious injury to whale calves.

Ed Underwood, DLNR Boating and Ocean Recreation administrator, stresses the safety hazard presented by vessel-whale collisions. “Adult humpbacks weigh as much as 45 tons and serious injury can occur to passengers and crew when a vessel strikes these large animals. Mariners should view humpbacks as hazards to navigation, and operate their vessels accordingly,” Underwood said in the news release.

The two types of signs warn of the collision risk and advises boaters of the federal 100-yard approach rule, which prohibits any ocean user from approaching within 100 yards of any humpback whale (except with special authorization from NOAA).

Sign locations on Kaua‘i include: Nawiliwili, Port Allen, Kikiaola small boat harbors.

The signs are one component of the Ocean Etiquette Campaign being led by the state DLNR office of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

More information on the campaign is available online at: hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/safe_boating.html.

Some vessel-whale collision avoidance guidelines follow:

• Keep a sharp lookout — Vessel operators should always stay vigilant for whales and other collision hazards. Look ahead for “blows” (puffs of mist), dorsal fins, tails, etc. Operators are further advised to post at least one dedicated whale lookout person, in addition to the operator, from November through May.

• Watch your speed — 13 knots or less may reduce injury potential.

• Stay at the helm — Keep hands on the wheel and throttle at all times, and be ready to take action immediately to avoid a whale in your path.

• Keep your distance — Once whales are sighted, stay at least 100 yards away.

• Stop immediately if within 100 yards of a humpback whale — Use prudent seamanship to decide to either move away slowly or wait for the whale to move away.

• Go around whales from behind — While maintaining 100 yards distance, if you encounter whales in your path, do not attempt to run out in front of whales to get past them.

• Warn other vessels — Use appropriate VHF radio protocol or other means to alert other vessels that may not be aware of whales in their path.

• Don’t assume whales see you or will get out of the way — Calves are especially vulnerable since they are curious and may not have learned to be cautious of vessels.

• Plan ahead — There may be delays in transit due to whale encounters, and avoid nighttime operations if possible.

Call the NOAA Hotline if involved in a collision: 1-888-256-9840.

If a phone call is not possible, hail the US Coast Guard on VHF channel 16.

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