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VIDEO: Emaciated Humpback Makes Early Appearance, Tailed by Tiger Shark

August 26, 2016, 9:15 AM HST
* Updated August 26, 2:47 PM
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VIDEO: Capt. Hall (The Wiki Wahine, Ultimate Whale Watch), NOAA’s West Maui Response team (MMHSRP Permit #18786)

In an untimely appearance, a humpback whale was spotted in Maui waters off the coast of Lahaina on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 25, 2016, well ahead of the traditional whale season in Hawaiian waters.

Capt. Ryan Hall with Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkel was alerted to the sighting and responded to the incident as part of the West Maui Rapid Response team.

According to Hall, the company donates it resources to assists NOAA fisheries with large mammal entanglement and distress response efforts. Hall said Ed Lyman, NOAA’s Large Whale Entanglement Response coordinator, contacted him at around 3:30 p.m. to respond, stating that a Blue Hawaiian Helicopter pilot had spotted the whale about a half an hour earlier.

Image credit: Captain Hall, The Wiki Wahine, Ultimate Whale Watch.

Image credit: Captain Hall (The Wiki Wahine, Ultimate Whale Watch), NOAA’s West Maui Response team (MMHSRP Permit #18786)

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Hall, was cleaning up from a morning charter aboard the company’s The Wiki Wahine vessel at Lahaina Harbor when the report was made. “My boss and company owner Lee James and crew member Peter Columbo, met me at the harbor 10 minutes later and we set out to find this whale… unheard of at this time of year,” said Hall.

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Executives with the Pacific Whale Foundation said this would be the first sighting of a humpback whale off the coast of Maui this year, “which is months ahead of when whales typically migrate from their northern summer feeding area to Hawaiʻi so that they can mate, calve and raise their young.”

“After searching the area for a half hour or so we spotted the animal. Sadly the humpback was in bad shape–malnourished, emaciated and covered with parasites… compromised and wasting away,” said Hall.

“Multiple large tiger sharks were following the animal. While no evidence of entanglement or a ship strike were observed, we can’t say for sure why this whale was in the shape it was in, or why it was in our waters, when it should still be up North on its feeding grounds,” Hall said.

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The footage was shot from Hall’s iPhone which was in a life proof case and was held over the side of the boat as the animal made a close pass by the vessel.

“We couldn’t be sure what was wrong with the whale, only that something prevented this guy from feeding this year,” said Hall, who noted there were no signs of injury or entanglement. “If there had been entangled line, Ed Lyman would have worked to free the whale. This animal was sick, so gathering photo and video data was all that could be done.”

According to Hall, there might be an attempt to take a biopsy or tissue sample. “That would be about the only other thing to do in this situation. It’s tough when we can’t help them. Sad for sure,” he said. “The response team’s first goal is to help. Second is to try and figure out what happened and try and learn from the situation.”

The Pacific Whale Foundation reported a sighting later in the day on Thursday evening by PWF Eco-Adventures vessel Ocean Quest.

Pacific Whale Foundation Founder Greg Kaufman noted that brief video captured of the whale on the surface, showed that it was encrusted with whale lice.

“The animal appears uninjured and not entangled,”said Kaufman. “It could be sick, starving or suffering from an internal blunt trauma injury. Whale lice are naturally occurring on humpback whales but tend to proliferate when a whale becomes weak or sick. It’s akin to death by a thousand bites. We are sending our research team out first thing in the morning to see if they can track the whale’s whereabouts.”

“I have studied humpback whales in Hawaiʻi for nearly 40 years,” said Kaufman in a PWF press release. “To my recollection this is the earliest sighting of a humpback in Maui waters.” Previously, the earliest appearance recorded was on Sept. 16 back in 2000, according to PWF records that date back to 1998. The majority of first sightings have taken place in October.

“Migrating whales do not arrive all at once,” said Kaufman. “They begin to appear off Maui’s coasts in autumn, with their numbers increasing through November and December.”

According to the PWF, at least 12,000 humpback whales are believed to migrate to Hawaiʻi each winter, with their rate increasing at 7% per year.

Under federal and state regulations, boaters and other water users are prohibited from approaching Humpback whales within 100 yards.

Capt. Carlos and the crew of Ocean Quest were concluding a sunset dinner cruise at the time of the evening sighting about .75 miles off the coast of Olowalu.

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