In 1976, I joined a small group of concerned citizens gathered in Lahaina to share their concern for the endangered humpback whale that found its way to Maui waters during the winter to mate, calve and nurse their young. With less than 1,000 remaining in the entire North Pacific and fewer than 600 humpbacks migrating to Hawai'i, we were concerned for the fate and welfare of the humpback.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was invited to the meeting to listen, and hopefully, help. Mauians asked for some relief and protection for the humpbacks under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. In the end, all agreed it was best to not "hassle the humpbacks." The first whale watch guidelines were crafted, affording a 100-yard, no-go zone around the whales and a 300-yard, no-go zone around mothers and calves.
In the early 1980s, NOAA simplified and codified these guidelines into regulations, making it illegal to pursue humpback whales or approach them closer than 100 yards or cause a vessel or other object to approach closer than 100 yards. Aircraft were limited to 1,000 feet over-flight of any humpback whale, except when in any designated flight corridor for takeoff or landing from an airport or runway. Hefty fines, potential imprisonment and seizure of equipment were also added to the once-benign guidelines.
Pacific Whale Foundation founder and executive director
The goal of giving the humpbacks some space and providing repercussions for those who failed to heed the regulations had been achieved.
Today, only Hawai'i and Alaska have enforceable regulations for approaching humpback whales. All other states operate under recommendations or guidelines that are vague and largely unenforceable. Over 100 countries have adopted either guidelines or regulations that are patterned from those first drafted here on Maui. Mauians have forever changed how the rest of the world approaches and sees whales worldwide.
While Mauians did the right thing and gave the humpbacks room to grow, they did. The population has been on a steady rise since the 1980s and continues to increase at a rate of nearly 7 percent per annum. Today, the once near-extinct humpback whale has flourished to numbers of over 23,000 in the North Pacific, with as many as 14,000 humpbacks visiting Hawai'i each winter. The epicenter of this mass visitation has been and continues to be Maui County.
Humpbacks can now be seen from virtually anywhere on Maui's leeward coast from November through May, with increased sightings on the windward side from Kipahulu to Kahakaloa. Competition pods regularly stop traffic along the Pali, and resting mother calf pairs attract onlookers at Puamana. The increase and apparent recovery of humpback whales in my lifetime has to be one of the greatest endangered species success stories of our time.
Maui has also led the world in the development of respectful whale watching. The industry grew out of both keen interest and respect for the whales, all while abiding by the strict regulations. Over 300,000 individuals venture out to see whales each year in Hawai'i. But this pales in comparison to the estimated 15 million enthusiasts who go whale watching in each year worldwide. Whale watching has become a springboard for stimulating further interest in the whales, their habitat, and the value of "saving" them. For many, a whale watching trip is their initial venture on the ocean, and provides the opportunity to experience firsthand the dependence of whales on the marine environment and to understand how essential it is that the oceans be kept clean and uncongested.
As leaders in the development of responsible whale watching, Pacific Whale Foundation has been acutely aware of the ever-changing nature of the relationship between humans and marine mammals over the past 33 years. We support attempts to prevent egregious forms of harassment and disturbance that emerging forms of "watching" may cause. At the same time, we recognize that watching whales and dolphins is not the major threat they face--it is not even among the top five.
Whales face threats caused by toxic runoff, noise pollution, fishery bycatch, marine debris, ship strikes, depletion of prey species, habitat destruction and global warming. Pacific Whale Foundation's philosophy is that it's critical to raise awareness about these threats to whales and their environment--and what better audience than the 15 million whale watchers who have had the chance to see the whales and fall in love with them? We believe strongly that all whale watch operators should accept a major share of the responsibility of educating their guests about marine conservation and encourage behaviors that protect our ocean environment.
The importance of educating visitors is certainly not a new concept. Much has been done in the interests of education in a wide variety of tourism settings. A failure to fully understand the interests and learning styles of the public, however, has limited the success of many marine wildlife-viewing programs. We recognize the need to develop an "ecology of interpretation" that values and understands the convergence of unique elements in a whale-watching episode--the operator, the whale watcher and the whale. And it is the operator who is in the best position to take the lead in planning how to reshape the behavior of the whale watcher in the context of the journey to see the whale.
Pacific Whale Foundation is dedicated to protecting whales and their ocean home through science and advocacy. On Saturday, Feb. 16, we will honor the humpbacks during World Whale Day in Kalama Park in Kihei. I invite you to join me for a free day of family fun and celebrate the return and recovery of the humpback whales.