Two humpback whales that delighted tourists around Aloha Tower for much of the day followed the Navatek cruise ship out of Honolulu Harbor this afternoon and headed east, Coast Guard Petty Officer Anthony Soto said.
"It looks like the whales have finally departed the harbor," Soto said. "It looks like they’re near Waikiki."
He said the whales left the harbor at about 2:15 p.m.
At one point today, two whales came within 10 to 15 feet of dozens of ecstatic visitors to Aloha Tower, who took dozens of photos.
Teresa Kiyonaga headed to Aloha Tower about 9 a.m. after she heard from her boyfriend that whales were in Honolulu Harbor.
"I thought it was awesome, beautiful," said Kiyonaga, a certified nurse’s assistant at Alexander Manor, a retirement home in Makiki.
She called her brother, David, and they both had the rare opportunity to see two humpback whales 15 feet away as the mammals swam next to the Star of Honolulu.
"Our New Year’s present," Kiyonaga said.
Officials with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary say two humpbacks had been swimming around Honolulu Harbor, but were unable to confirm reports that four other whales have joined them.
Elia Y.K. Herman, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, initially said there were reports of two groups of humpbacks — a mother and calf and a pod of four adults — swimming separately inside the harbor.
But Edward Lyman, marine mammal response manager for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said this afternoon that the organization could not verify the presence of four other whales.
"We have not been able to confirm those other four," Lyman said. "I’m starting to be suspicious."
Based on photographs of two whales provided to the Star-Advertiser, Lyman said the two nearly 30-foot whales could be a mother and off-spring.
"I don’t think we’re looking at a mother and a calf," he said. "Maybe a mother and a yearling."
Out of a humpback whale population of 12,000 mammals that live in the waters between Alaska and Hawaii, an estimated 10,000 humpbacks make the annual winter migration to Hawaii to mate and give birth, Lyman said.
"We’re just coming into the January, February, March peak season for whale density here," Lyman said.
He surveyed navigation charts for Honolulu Harbor today and said the whales should have no difficulty maneuvering around Honolulu Harbor’s depths of 45 to 50 feet.
But they could run into trouble if they swim into shallow waters of 12 to 15 feet closer to Honolulu Airport, Lyman said.
"The main dangers would be boat traffic," Lyman said. "Would they get themselves into an area that’s just too (shallow)? That doesn’t look to be that too much of an issue."
Until the DLNR officers took over responsibility, the Coast Guard had dispatched the 45-foot response boat Medium to enforce a 100-yard safety zone around the whales, said Petty Officer Anthony Soto.
"These whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act so vessels are required to stay at least 100 yards away from them at all times," Soto said.
Willy Winn, the captain of the Ocean Pearl, a 65-foot commercial fishing boat, said a male and female humpback shadowed him and his five-person crew for days as they fished for ahi 400 miles north of Oahu.
"A couple of humpback whales have been hanging around us for about a week," Winn said. "When we started coming back, they followed us all the way into the harbor."
The Ocean Pearl arrived at the mouth of Honolulu Harbor around 6:30 a.m. today and drifted for about 20 minutes, waiting to see what the whales would do.
When the boat tied up to Pier 38, the whales followed, Winn said. "They’re fine. They’re on their annual migration down south and I think they just happened to run into us and tagged along."
Chris Kojima, chief mate aboard the Young Bros. barge Manu O Ke Kai, photographed two of the whales as they swam around the harbor this morning.
"They’re lost and one appears to have a pretty good cut on its back," Kojima said.
Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said humpbacks last swam into the harbor in 1995 or 1996.
"It’s been a long time since something like this happened — at least 15, 16 years — when a whale and a calf came into the harbor," Meisenzahl said.
Tommy Collins, a harbor pilot working off of the pilot boat Kawika, first saw two of the whales around 9:15 a.m. at Pier 30 as he helped move a ship from Pier 31 to Pier 1.
"Two of them were just right there, doing their flops and turns," Collins said. "They put on a great little show."
He then saw two more whales by Pier 2 as the Kawika neared Pier 1 Alpha.
Collins said the whales appeared to be as long as the 30-foot Kawika. "They all look big to me," he said.
Star-Advertiser reporter Rosemarie Bernardo contributed to this report.