Hawai'i State News

Humpback whales around Hawaiian Islands warrant extra care by ocean users

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A humpback mother and her calf. Photo Courtesy: Moore/Permit 15240

With the return of humpback whales, or Koholā, to Hawaiʻi waters, including some early reports of multiple mother-and-calf pairs, the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is reminding ocean users to keep a safe and legal distance of at least 100 yards from whales, and reduce harassment and possible vessel strikes that pose risks to the animals and ocean users alike.

Two key best practices are for vessel operators to keep a sharp eye out for Koholā and reduce vessel speeds, as both have been shown to reduce the risk of hitting a whale, especially calves, which are particularly susceptible to vessel strikes.

Humpback whale season in Hawai‘i generally runs from November through May, when thousands of Koholā return to Hawai‘i waters to breed, give birth, and nurse their young.


Go slow, whales below

During Koholā season, especially in water depths of 600 feet or less, boaters are asked to maintain a speed of 15 knots or less (or safe planing speed) to minimize the risk of striking a whale. When directly approaching a whale to view it, or departing from viewing, speed should be reduced to six knots or less within 400 yards. 

These speed recommendations for boating around whales were developed jointly by the sanctuary, the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, Pacific Whale Foundation, and members of Hawaiʻiʻs on-water community. These and other best practices can be found at: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dobor/boating-with-whales/


Keep a safe distance 

Collisions with vessels are a risk to Koholā and humans. It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means including by boat, kayak, paddleboard, or drone, and closer than 1,000 feet by aircraft. 

If you see an entangled whale


If you see an injured or entangled marine mammal, keep a safe and legal distance and call the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at 888-256-9840 or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 immediately. 

Anyone can report Koholā  entangled in marine debris. Entanglement may not impact the animal immediately, but can result in starvation, physical trauma and infections, and may contribute to vessel strikes since the animals are less mobile. 

Reporting an issue

To report a vessel coming too close to a whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964, email [email protected], or contact your local DOCARE office by phone, email, or on the DLNRTip app, which can be found at https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/blog/2020/07/09/nr20-097/.

Additional wildlife viewing guidelines, safety tips, and hotlines can be found at https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/visit/recreation.html. DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation’s “Boating with Whales” website can be found at: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dobor/boating-with-whales/. In their blog, Pacific Whale Foundation explains the multi-organization workgroup that developed the boating speed recommendations:  https://www.pacificwhale.org/blog/go-slow-whales-below-pwf-research-instrumental-in-multi-agency-collaboration-resulting-in-new-voluntary-whale-watch-guidelines/

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