Hawaii’s whale watching season promises to be good

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Whale watching tours and research excursions have returned to Hawaiian waters alongside the humpback whales.

The season, so far, is looking good, according to Ed Lyman, natural resource management specialist for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

“All scientists agree, from last season there was a rebound in sightings,” Lyman said. “It’s not a full recovery, but they’ve bounced off the trend line we were on, and this year is looking good too, almost like a continuation of last season.”

Each year, thousands of humpback whales visit the waters around the Hawaiian Islands, usually from November through May, to breed, give birth, and nurse their young.

Plenty of whales are there this season, Lyman said, including an abundance of mother-calf pairs, which is why the sanctuary reminds boaters to slow down and keep a watchful eye to avoid collisions.

As required by COVID-19 restrictions, whale-watching businesses are operating at 50% capacity, requiring passengers to wear face masks on the boats. Many are also taking extra precautions such as pre-boarding temperature checks and assigned seats to maintain physical distancing.

The Pacific Whale Foundation was one of the first operators to resume eco-adventure tours in late October, according to Blake Moore, director of business operations. It’s been an amazing season so far, he said.

“There are a lot of moms and cubs in Maalaea Bay,” he said. “The moms are teaching their little ones some of the behaviors they will need to return to Alaska. Lots of tail snapping, (pectoral fin) snapping and notching.

New protocols

The new protocols include pre-boarding temperature checks, which are staggered, and assigned seating for the 65ft catamarans, which carry around 60 instead of 150 passengers on board.

Under federal rules, masks are required for all ship personnel and passengers at all times, except when eating or drinking, with the exception of children under 2 years old.

The foundation has made significant investments to adapt to the pandemic, Moore said, including an online waiver system, an iPad check-in option, touchless taps and entrances, and sanitizing stations. hands and plexiglass screens.

A wide range of tours are offered, from $38 per adult for a sunrise tour to $82 per adult for a tour with experts.

The foundation had to lay off nearly all of its staff during the pandemic, but was able to hire more than 100 — about half — Moore said, and hopes to break even in the future.

“We’re very excited to be back on the water,” he said. “We like to take people out.”

Small groups, higher prices

Some other Maui operators have not resumed tours and others have had to raise prices to compensate for the changes.

Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkel, which has been offering eco-rafting trips from Lahaina since 1982, decided to wait until December to resume trips.

The rafts operate at 50% capacity and can accommodate 11 passengers on smaller rafts and 16 on larger rafts.

“It’s a small group experience,” manager Toni Colombo said. “I think it’s been easier for those of us who already run smaller boats because we’re already used to doing a small group experience.”

At the same time, at half capacity, there is a smaller profit margin for smaller boats and prices have risen to pay crew and account for operating costs, she said. Tours range from $67 (discount for whale watching) to $84 for a two-hour tour and $135 for a tour plus a snorkel stop.

Fortunately, the company has loyal customers who come back year after year, she says, and some make back-to-back tours.

The season has brought some memorable moments, so far, according to Colombo, as passengers in late February witnessed an unusual double breach – a moment when two whales jumped and twirled out of the water.

There have also been “aggressions”, she said, which is when some whales approach and come right alongside a boat. Boaters must maintain a distance of at least 100 meters but sometimes the whales approach out of curiosity.

“Honestly, I think people are very happy to be back on the water. For our crew, we all kind of live to be on the water,” Colombo said, noting that many are marine biologists. “When you’re on the water, it takes all your words away, and being in nature brings peace.”

Witnessing humpback whales in person not only brings a sense of wonder, she says, but also peace and appreciation for nature.

Makai Adventures also resumed two-hour tours in December, with its boats at 50% capacity and 12 passengers at a time. Makai also offers small group tours and has raised prices slightly to $68.77 for ages 14 and older and $50 for children under 12 to compensate for the changes.

“We’ve raised our rates a little bit because we’re taking fewer people, but everyone I’ve spoken to really understands,” manager Iwa Shaw said, “and they see the value in having fewer people at edge.”

Makai plans to hold their tours until mid-April and expects to be able to survive this pandemic. Shaw said seats were selling out quickly and in addition to keeping eight employees, the company was even able to hire a few.

In Oahu, Star of Honolulu has started offering a new Waikiki Whale Watch cruise aboard its Dolphin Star, a two-deck catamaran.

The morning cruise will depart from the port of Ala Wai and travel along the Honolulu coast three times a week, and will be available until the end of March.

A break for the whales?

Did humpback whales take vacations on human-powered boats at the end of last season?

It’s hard to determine, according to Lyman, given that research on the whales stopped in mid-March last year, although a clue to how they reacted may come from recordings. water underwater acoustics.

According to acoustic monitoring researcher Marc Lammers, whales in 2020 continued to sing both before and after COVID lockdowns. Last year, the singing persisted a little later in the season than the year before.

However, it fits with a “longer trend” in the whale season since 2016, he said. Furthermore, he said whale migration patterns are influenced more by ecosystem trends than local human activity.

Scientists were concerned about humpback whales after several years of declining sightings from 2015 to 2018, but were encouraged to see a rebound in subsequent years.

“The population is most likely still rebounding from the significant disruptions it experienced a few years ago,” Lammers said in an email. “It will be interesting to see how this year’s season compares and if the trend of longer seasons continues.”

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