Pioneer of whale watching, PWF founder dies

Kaufman, 63, loses battle with brain cancer

GREG KAUFMAN – Pacific Whale Foundation founder

Greg Kaufman, founder of the 38-year-old Pacific Whale Foundation and a pioneer of whale watching on Maui, died Saturday.

The Haiku resident, originally from Hillsboro, Ore., was 63 years old and had been battling brain cancer. Services are pending.

Last month, the foundation announced that Kaufman had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In the news release, Kaufman said he was “feeling strong and very optimistic” and traveled and spent time with family during the holidays and was “looking forward to another year of exciting developments” at the foundation.

Kaufman began the Pacific Whale Foundation in 1980 on Maui, after developing a fascination with studying whales and in response to humpback whales being brought to near extinction by commercial whaling.

“Greg fervently believed that we could help save whales by educating the public, from a scientific perspective, about these amazing animals and their ocean home,” said PWF Board Chairman Paul Forestell, who co-authored “Hawaii’s Humpback Whales: The Ultimate Guide” with Kaufman.

“That’s how we came to offer whale watches and other ocean eco-tours in the first place, as a way to share our research, knowledge and passion with others,” said Forestell, who has a doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of Hawaii and is provost and vice president for academic affairs for Keuka College in New York.

He came to Maui to be with the ailing Kaufman.

Former Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Irene Bowie said she, Forestell and others were together at the foundation’s beginning.

Bowie said she was not only sad that Kaufman is gone but was feeling nostalgic about how Kaufman’s vision started when “the environmental movement was just beginning to take on steam.”

“A lot has been accomplished, the number of whales coming to Maui each year, that’s really a success story,” said Bowie, who moved to Laguna Beach, Calif., three years ago.

The foundation started off in an accountant’s office in Azeka Place in Kihei, Bowie said. There only were about 800 humpback whales coming to Maui at that time.

By 1993, it was estimated that 4,000 whales from the North Pacific Ocean came to Hawaii. That number today is more than 10,000, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

“He really brought attention to the plight of marine mammals in Maui County. He worked hard to educate people and have people care,” Bowie said.

She remembers in the early 1980s foundation members going on commercial snorkel boats out of Lahaina Harbor and giving talks about whales while trying to sell T-shirts to support their research. Kaufman would go to Maui hotels to give lectures about whales.

These activities were probably the start of the foundation’s successful for-profit arm, which today includes two retail stores on Maui; whale watches and snorkel, cocktail and evening cruises; and star-gazing excursions. PWF is now based in Maalaea.

“There was no big operation. We didn’t have a boat of our own,” Bowie recalled in the beginning.

The only boat they had was a Zodiac, which they used to conduct research.

Bowie acknowledged that some took issue with Pacific Whale Foundation having a for-profit arm, currently known as PacWhale Eco-Adventures. But she defended Kaufman as a master entrepreneur, using the money garnered from the for-profit ventures, such as whale watches and cruises, to fund the nonprofit organization.

When Bowie went on to do other nonprofit work, she said many of those nonprofits looked to Kaufman’s PWF model as a way to be self-sufficient. “That’s what people really looked at, and thought it was a good model,” she said.

On the research side, the foundation he created would go on to study humpback and Hawaiian false killer whales; sponsor research projects in Australia, Chile and Ecuador; and join initiatives to end whaling and marine mammal captivity worldwide.

Closer to home, the foundation has led volunteer projects to preserve Maui’s ecosystems, marine education programs for children and coastal marine debris monitoring and removal efforts, PWF said.

Kaufman also was involved with the International Whaling Commission and its subcommittees, was a contributing member to the Southern Oceans Research Partnership and co-led the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Regional Workshop on Marine Mammal Watch in the Wider Caribbean Region.

Kaufman was one of the original members of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Council in 1996, said Allen Tom, Pacific Islands regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. It was actually called the pre-advisory council before the sanctuary was finalized in 1997.

Anne Rillero, who spent two decades handling public relations for PWF, said Kaufman and the organization were pioneers in eco-friendly practices, as long ago they were handing out reef-safe sunscreen and educating people about marine debris and seafood choices.

“I think he was an extremely hard worker, he was very determined. He never ate lunch,” Rillero fondly recalled.

The foundation also molded others to become leaders in the environmental community on Maui. “If you look at the nonprofit organizations here on Maui, you will see many, many PWF foundation employees,” she said.

Forestell recalled the 14-foot inflatable boat and used camera with which Kaufman began the foundation.

“Today, the Pacific Whale Foundation’s more than 200 employees publish scientific research findings on marine mammal behavior and the threats they face; operate sustainable whale watching tours in Hawaii, Australia and Ecuador; and work with a wide variety of international nonprofits and government agencies to advance our mission, ‘Protecting the ocean through science and advocacy,’ ” Forestell said Monday.

He will miss Kaufman, whom he has known for nearly 40 years.

“I will also miss his fearless ability to ask the critical question no one else will ask, to never stop believing that we can build a better world, and to demonstrate an indomitable sense of adventure in looking for answers to important but complex questions.”

Kaufman is survived by his wife, Selket, along with four daughters from a previous marriage Uilani, Laakea, Pulama and Kulia.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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