First humpback whale of the season makes its appearance

Pacific Whale Foundation tour boat spots whale north of Molokini

Passengers take photos of what could be the first reported whale sighting of the season on Monday aboard the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Explorer. Pacific Whale Foundation photos

Almost like clockwork, the Pacific Whale Foundation spotted its first whale of the season on Monday, which is approximately the same time as last year’s first sighting.

With assistance from another boat, the Maui Diamond, the foundation’s Ocean Explorer Capt. Aaron Bement spotted the whale at 8:08 a.m., about 2.4 miles north of Molokini, heading toward Maalaea Harbor. The 2017 sighting was on Oct. 9, at 4:44 p.m., near Honolua Bay.

Typically, whale season in Hawaiian waters runs from November to May, with the peak season from January to March, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The timing of the sightings this year and last was consistent with historical trends, said Marc Lammers, the sanctuary’s research coordinator.

“The sanctuary has been keeping track of early and out-of-season whale sightings since 1988 and, on average over that time period, we would expect the first sighting to occur during either the first or second week of October,” Lammers said in an email.

Pacific Whale Foundation spotted its first whale of the season on Monday from its Ocean Explorer vessel about 2.4 miles north of Molokini heading toward Maalaea Harbor.

He was unaware of any boaters or operators reporting a whale sighting yet this fall, other than the sighting on Monday.

Ed Lyman, the sanctuary’s natural resources management specialist, added that because of the whale’s location outside the Kihei Boat Ramp and near Molokini, plenty of tour boats “got a great early-season sighting” on Monday.

In 2016, the foundation spotted its first whale on Oct. 20 and in 2015, its first humpback was seen on Oct. 24.

Most of the foundation’s first sightings from 1998 to the present have been in early to mid-October.

But there have been some exceptions.

In 2005, the foundation’s first whale sighting was on Nov. 11, and, in 2000, it spotted its first whale on Sept. 16.

Of this year’s whale sighting, Bement said: “This is why we do this. You never know what you’ll see on any given day. One day, it’s the endangered false killer whales that our research team is studying, the next spinner dolphins, and (Monday) our first humpback whale sighting.”

At least 12,000 humpback whales are believed to migrate to Hawaii each winter, with the species’ numbers increasing at 7 percent per year, the foundation said. The whales 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.

According to the National Marine Sanctuary, Hawaii is the only state in the United States where humpback whales mate, calve and nurse their young. Humpbacks may find Hawaii suitable because of its warm waters, underwater visibility, the variety of ocean depths and the lack of natural predators.

Humpback whales are protected by federal and state regulations, which prohibit vessels and other water-users from approaching a humpback whale within 100 yards.

The current estimate on the population of humpbacks in the North Pacific is 22,000 individuals.

In the foundation’s annual whale count in February, sightings were down by double-digit percentages when compared to 2017. But it wasn’t clear if the number of marine mammals was peaking at the same time each year, foundation researchers said.

The lower numbers could mean that the peak of the season was earlier or later.

More than 100 volunteers worked with foundation researchers to count whales from various points on Maui’s shoreline for several hours on one day to take a “snapshot in time.”

In total, volunteers recorded 529 humpback whale sightings this year, including 335 pods (or groups of whales) and 62 calves.

The February sightings were down 455, or 46.2 percent, from 2017’s total of 984 whales. There were 209 fewer pod sightings, down 38.4 percent from 2017’s 544, according to foundation totals.

The 2018 total for calves spotted was 62, which is 29.5 percent less than last year’s 88 calves.

The foundation reported that the number of whale sightings has dropped since 2015, but the overall trend over a longer period of time showed increasing numbers of whales, pods and calves.

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

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