LIHUE — The last full moon of the year brings with it notes of snow in many places around the world, but on Kauai the end of December means the arrival of whales.
At least, that’s the beginning of the busy season for the humpback whale migration.
Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a reminder for ocean users to maintain a safe distance from the humpback whales, which are swimming about 3,000 miles from the food-laden Alaskan waters.
“Collisions between whales and vessels occur annually, presenting serious risks to boaters as well as the whales,” said Edward Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator.
Lyman works with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to free whales from entanglements and track the debris for research.
“Whale calves are particularly vulnerable because they are difficult to see and surface more often,” Lyman said.
While NOAA is announcing the arrival of the humpbacks in December, those on the water around Kauai say the whales are already here and whale conservationist groups say more are on the way.
“It’s still a little early,” said Gordon LaBedz of the whale conservation group Kohola Leo. “The best months for a whale watch trip is February and March.”
The humpback whales are among about 20 different species of marine mammals that frequent waters around Hawaii.
“They come here every year to deliver their babies and nurse them to be able to swim back to their Alaska feeding grounds,” LaBedz said. “It is important to remember that these little babies swim just under the surface and are not yet educated about speeding boats.”
Kit Furderer, with the tour company Holo Holo Charters, said captains and passengers have been seeing whales since October, but the frequency has increased over the last couple of weeks.
Captain Glenn Stalker noted that last Thursday, the Napali sunset tour was the most activity he has witnessed this year, with multiple whales breaching and lots of pectoral slapping.
Stalker said he anticipates that multiple whale sightings will be common every day now, as “we will see more whales arriving and really peaking at the end of December through February.”
“The whales typically arrive with the last full moon in December,” Furderer said. “These beautiful creatures thrill and delight us with their incredible acrobatic displays during our Niihau and Napali Coast boat tours; the more time you spend on the water the greater your chances of some memorable encounters.”
The number of whales migrating to Hawaiian waters this time of year varies, but NOAA estimates about 12,000 humpback whales generally come into the area between January through March.
The animals are protected by state and federal agencies and approaching humpback whales when in or on the water within 100 yards, or within 1,000 feet by air, is illegal according to NOAA.
With the influx of humpbacks into the area comes the possibility that people might come in contact with or see an entangled whale, as the animals can get entangled in fishing gear along their journey.
Entangled whales are at risk for starvation, physical trauma, infections and boat strikes because the injuries and entanglements slow the animal down and make it less mobile.
It’s important to remember to keep a safe distance if you come in contact with an entangled whale and to call the entanglement hotline instead of trying to help yourself, as the large animals can present hazardous situations very quickly.
The NOAA Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Hotline is 888-256-9840. In addition, immediately call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 and report the animal.