MAALAEA (MAUI), HI – When news stories about a humpback whale with terrible scars stretching from its tail fluke to its back appeared in the Australian press last week, Pacific Whale Foundation research director Quincy Gibson, PhD, had one thought, “I’ve seen this whale before.” It turns out that she has the photos to prove it.
The news reports told of a whale that was sighted on Monday, June 8 near North Head, a headland southeast of the Sydney suburb of Manly. The whale’s disfiguring scars are thought to be the result of an accident with a boat’s propeller.
It turns out that the same scarred whale had been photo-identified nine months earlier, on September 6 and 7, 2008, by Ros Butt of Cat Balou Cruises of Eden, a small town situated halfway between Sydney and Melbourne in New South Wales. Ros is a long-time supporter and major contributor to Pacific Whale Foundation’s catalog of individual humpback whales identified in the south Pacific, including along Australia’s east coast.
“We felt so sad for this whale – it had obviously been severely injured in a collision with a boat,” said Dr. Gibson.
Hearing reports about the whale being sighted this year was encouraging for Dr. Gibson. “It gave me hope that it will survive long-term, despite its traumatic accident and injuries.”
Pacific Whale Foundation president and founder, Greg Kaufman pointed out that collisions between vessels and whales are unfortunately becoming more commonplace, as whale populations increase throughout the Pacific.
“It is important for boaters and vessel operators to recognize the times of year when whales will be present in their area and to slow down, to avoid collisions,” he said.
“Colliding with a 40-ton animal is not something that any boater wants to experience,” he said, noting that on Maui, a fisherman sustained injuries after his boat hit a humpback whale several years ago.
In Hawaii, Pacific Whale Foundation has enacted a campaign called “Be Whale Aware” to educate vessel operators about ways to prevent collisions and other disturbances to whales. The campaign offers free fact sheets, educational stickers, and training classes to boaters and ocean users.
“The Be Whale Aware guidelines were created after many hours of meeting with commercial boat operators on Maui,” said Greg Kaufman. “They supplement the State of Hawaii and United States regulations governing boat approaches to humpback whales.”
All of Pacific Whale Foundation’s vessels are required to follow all state and US federal regulations concerning whales and to also adhere to the Be Whale Aware guidelines.
Pacific Whale Foundation advises boaters to stay alert at the helm and always post an observer while underway. During whale season, boaters should reduce their speed to 15 knots or less when traversing ocean areas where whales may be present.
Pacific Whale Foundation also urges boaters to limit time with whale groups containing calves to 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers. When within 300 meters or less of a whale or dolphin group, reduce speed to 4-6 knots or less. Boaters should also avoid abrupt course changes.
Australian regulations prohibit approaching humpback whales closer than 100 meters, and in some areas this distance is increased to 300 meters if a calf is present. Similarly, in the US, federal regulations require vessels to stay at least 100 yards from a humpback whale.
If a vessel unexpectedly encounters a humpback whale within 100 meters, the Be Whale Aware guidelines state that you should stop immediately and allow the whales to pass and keep clear of the whales’ path. Boaters should avoid positioning vessels within 300 meters of the path of traveling whales.
In addition, Pacific Whale Foundation has installed Whale Protection Devices on all of its vessels in Hawaii. These devices are the first US Coast Guard approved devices to be created and used on commercial vessels that help guide whales away from propellers and running gear.
Pacific Whale Foundation researchers will be returning to Australia this summer and fall to study humpback whales along Australia’s east coast, in Port Douglas, Hervey Bay, and Eden.
“We are extremely grateful to Cat Balou Cruises for their support,” said Dr. Gibson. “They have been a valued partner in our humpback whale research off the coast of Australia.”
Pacific Whale Foundation is an NGO, based in Hawaii, with long-term research projects ongoing in Australia and Ecuador. The mission of Pacific Whale Foundation is to promote appreciation, understanding, and protection of whales, dolphins, coral reefs, and our planet’s oceans. They accomplish this by educating the public – from a scientific perspective – about the marine environment. They support and conduct responsible marine research and address marine conservation issues in Hawaii and the Pacific. Through educational ecotours, they model and promote sound ecotourism practices and responsible wildlife watching. To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation, visit www.pacificwhale.org.
Cat Balou Cruises operate from the Port of Eden, New South Wales. Ros and Gordon Butt have been operating Cat Balou Cruises since 1987 and are the longest-established, whale-watching operators in New South Wales, having conducted their popular Whale Watching Cruises at Eden since 1990. They have gained the reputation of giving exceptional service and value on all their cruises, as well as sharing their love of the area and nature with their passengers. They also assist Pacific Whale Foundation and other organizations with whale and dolphin research. To learn more about Cat Ballou Cruises, go to http://www.catbalou.com.au/.