First whale of the season spotted off West Maui shore

The Maui News – The first whale of the season was spotted Thursday morning off the coast of Lahaina, according to the Pacific Whale Foundation.

The Ocean Discovery spotted the sub-adult humpback whale at 8:20 a.m. The crew was alerted to the possible sighting by the Queen’s Treasure, which saw the whale heading south southwest about 3.7 miles off Lahaina, the foundation said.

This year’s first sighting was a few days earlier than last year, Oct. 24.

“The whales do not arrive en masse, but in an age-class parade,” said foundation founder and Executive Director Greg Kaufman. “This first sighting is the vanguard of humpbacks that will arrive in increasing numbers from now until they peak in February and March, when all the calves have been born.”

At least 12,000 humpback whales are believed to migrate to Hawaii each winter, with their rate increasing at 7 percent per year, the foundation said. They travel from their northern summer feeding area that extends from Northern California to the Bering Sea, arriving in Hawaii to mate, give birth and care for their young calves.

The humpback whale population in Hawaii was delisted from Endangered Species Act protections last month. The humpbacks had been on the list since 1970.

Humpback whales still are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the 100-yard distance limits were retained for the Hawaii population. Hunting humpback whales remains prohibited.

A distressed humpback whale was spotted off Olowalu in August. Whale experts were not sure if it represented the first whale of the 2016-17 season or a wayward whale from the previous season. Humpback whales typically first arrive in Hawaiian waters in September or October and stay through May, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary said.