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NOAA urges ocean users to follow whale protection rules

By Staff | Dec 30, 2010

A whale breaches off McGregor Point. Photo by Ed Lyman, HIHWNMS, NOAA Fisheries Permit #782-1438.

KIHEI — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary reminds ocean users to stay safe and operate within the law during humpback whale season.

As many as 12,000 humpback whales winter in Hawaiian waters each year. These acrobatic, 45-ton marine mammals attract wildlife enthusiasts, but collisions between vessels and whales pose a serious injury threat both to the animals and boaters.

Ocean users also are subject to risks when whales surface, breach or slap their massive tails or flippers.

“Collisions with vessels are a major source of injury and death for endangered whales in Hawaii,” said Allen Tom, Pacific Islands regional director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

“It’s important for boaters to be extra vigilant during whale season, for their own safety and the protection of these magnificent animals.”

Humpback whale season in Hawaii generally runs from November through May, although whales may be encountered in limited numbers during other months. The usual peak in humpback abundance occurs from January through March.

The sanctuary offers information to the public on safe and legal whale watching. For more information, visit http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov.

Endangered humpback whales are protected in Hawaii. Federal regulations prohibit approaching within 100 yards of whales when in the water and 1,000 feet when operating an aircraft.

These and other federal marine mammal and endangered species protection regulations apply to all ocean users, including vessel operators, kayakers and paddle boarders, throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

In the past two seasons, NOAA has issued notices of violations proposing civil administrative penalties against commercial whale watch operators, recreational boaters, kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders and swimmers for allegedly violating the approach rules.

It is important that all ocean users be aware of and comply with the prohibition against approaching endangered humpback whales, NOAA stated.

Humpback whales congregate in ocean waters less than 600 feet deep throughout the main Hawaiian Islands. Mariners may also encounter humpback whales at the surface over deeper waters, however.

Ocean users are urged to take caution during the humpback whale season by keeping a sharp lookout; traveling at a slow, safe speed; and always staying at the vessel’s helm.