Welcome to the whales

The first whales of the season have already been spotted in Maui’s waters.

According to a report in this newspaper, Cary Shewmaker, captain of the catamaran sailboat Kai Kanani II, spotted a juvenile male last Friday evening down by Little Beach in Makena.

Saturday morning, folks aboard the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Voyager saw an adult humpback doing a fluke dive about 2 miles from Molokini.

The sightings are earlier than usual, though not the earliest ever reported.

Each winter, thousands of humpback whales migrate here, mirroring activity on land where residents of the cold states on the Mainland come to warm up in the semitropics of Hawaii.

The visiting humpbacks undoubtedly have a role in filling rooms in resorts, which makes them very important to the visitor economy.

At all of the south shore harbors and boating facilities on Maui, tour boat operators are gearing up for the new whale-watching season that officially runs from Dec. 15 to May 15, with the peak season considered to be January to March.

For all concerned, there remains that need to be respectful of the privacy of the waterborne visitors. State and federal laws protect marine mammals, with humpbacks and other whales given an added layer of protection as endangered species.

The waters off the islands are part of their habitat – and boaters, kayakers, surfers and swimmers need to remember they are intruding on a critical habitat for an endangered species. Violations carry stiff criminal and civil penalties.

Special federal rules for Hawaii prohibit vessels and people in the water from approaching within 100 yards of a humpback whale, although the whales remain free to approach a vessel that must stop immediately if a whale is seen within 100 yards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary estimates that as many as 10,000 humpback whales may migrate to Hawaii each winter. The sanctuary office in Kihei (879-2818; hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov) can provide information on the regulations.

There also are telephone numbers to call when a violation occurs or if a whale seems to be in trouble.

To report a whale in trouble, it’s (888) 256-9840.

To report an incident of whale harassment, it’s (800) 853-1964.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.