Whales finding safer passage
Fewer entanglements with debris, fewer boat strikes have been reported this season
MAALAEA — Not a single whale entanglement has been reported almost four months into whale season in Hawaiian waters.
“It’s mind-boggling. We’ve never gone this long,” said Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Last season, the first confirmed entanglement happened on Dec. 29, 2015. While it’s possible some whales have gotten caught up in stray nets and gear this season, overall the number of incidents has been declining, Lyman said Tuesday as he hung onto a U.S. Coast Guard boat patrolling for whales in distress.
During the 2015-16 season, there were six entanglements. The season before that, there were 13.
Fewer entanglements could be because fewer whales are traveling down south, Lyman said. With warmer conditions from El Nino and the Blob — warmer-than-average waters in the Northern Pacific — it’s possible the food up north hasn’t been as good. Whales have to decide whether it’s worth it to travel 3,000 miles and give birth to a one-ton calf.
They might think, “my fuel tank’s not full. Maybe I’ll skip going to Hawaii this year,” Lyman said.
But while Hawaii has yet to see a whale tangled in debris, Alaska has had two confirmed whale entanglements, which is unusual during this time of year, Lyman said. Entanglements up north are more likely to happen around May or June, when the whales are heading back and more boaters are venturing out into the warmer waters. Alaska hasn’t reported a whale entanglement in January over the past decade, he said.
Boat strikes in Hawaii also appear to be declining. During the 2014-15 season, five whales were impacted by non-incidental boat strikes. The following season, there were just two. There’s been one so far this season.
Overall, things are looking up for the whales. Last September, most species of humpbacks were taken off the federal endangered species list.
“There are still entanglements. There are still boat strikes, but it’s not overtly threatening the population,” Lyman said.
That doesn’t mean federal and state agencies have stopped watching out for the whales. The U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration do regular checks to look for distressed whales and make sure boats are staying 100 yards away from the animals. It’s part of an interagency effort known as Operation Kohola Guardian. Kohola means whale in Hawaiian.
“Being in the (Maui) triangle the last day and a half, we’ve witnessed the charter vessels and the mariners actually taking really good caution in and around the whales, which is great to see,” said Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Ball, commanding officer of the Oahu-based cutter Galveston Island.
Lyman said that if oceangoers witness a marine mammal in distress, they should call the 24-hour hotline at (888) 256-9840 or hail the Coast Guard at VHF Channel 16. People should not try to help the animals themselves, he said.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.