Whale watching tours and research excursions have returned to Hawaii waters alongside humpback whales.
The season, so far, is shaping up to be a good one, according to Ed Lyman, Natural Resource Management Specialist for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
“All the scientists are agreeing, starting last season there was a bounce back in sightings,” said Lyman. “It’s not a total recovery, but they had a bounce back to the trend line we had been on, and this year looks good as well, almost like a continuation of last season.”
Each year, thousands of humpback whales visit the waters around the Hawaiian islands, generally from November to May, to breed, give birth, and nurse their young.
Many whales are out there this season, Lyman said, including an abundance of mother-and-calf pairs, which is why the Sanctuary is reminding boaters to slow down and keep a watchful eye for them to avoid collisions.
As required by COVID-19 restrictions, whale watching companies are operating at 50% capacity, requiring passengers to wear face masks on 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 earliest operators to resume its eco-adventure tours in late October, according to Blake Moore, director of commercial operations. It has been an amazing season so far, he said.
“There are lots of moms and calves out on Maalaea Bay,” he said. “Moms are in the process of teaching their calves some of the behaviors they’re going to need in order to make their way back to Alaska. There’s a lot of tail slapping, (pectoral fin) slapping, and breaches.”
New protocols include temperature checks prior to boarding, which is staggered, and assigned seating for the 65-foot catamarans, which carry about 60 instead of 150 passengers on board.
Under federal rules, masks are required for all staff and passengers on vessels at all times unless eating or drinking, with exceptions for children under 2.
The foundation made significant investments to adapt to the pandemic, said Moore, including an online waiver system, iPad check- in option, touch-free faucets and entrances, along with hand sanitizer stations, and plexiglass shields.
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 has been able to hire more than 100 — about half — back, Moore said, and is hopeful it will be able to break even in the future.
“We’re very excited to be back out on the water,” he said. “We love taking people out.”
Smaller 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 tours from Lahaina since 1982, decided to wait until December to resume tours.
The rafts are running at 50% capacity, and can take 11 passengers on smaller rafts and 16 on larger rafts.
“It’s a small group experience,” said manager Toni Colombo. “I think it’s been easier for those of us who already run smaller boats because we’re used to doing a small group experience already.”
At the same time, at half capacity, there is a smaller profit margin for smaller boat and prices increased in order to pay the crew and account for operational costs, she said. Tours run from $67 (discount whale watch) to $84 for a two-hour tour, and $135 for a tour plus snorkel stop.
Thankfully, the company has loyal customers who return year after year, she said, and some go on several tours in a row.
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 “muggings,” she said, which is when some of the whales approach and come up right alongside a boat. Boaters must maintain a distance of at least 100 yards but sometimes the whales approach out of curiosity.
“I honestly think people are most excited to be back on the water. For our crew, all of us kind of live to be on the water,” said Colombo, noting that many are marine biologists. “When you’re out on the water, it just takes all your words away, and being out in nature brings peace.”
Witnessing humpback whales in person not only brings a sense of wonder, she said, but of peace, and appreciation for nature.
Makai Adventures also resumed its two-hour tours in December, with its boats at 50% capacity and 12 passengers at a time. Makai also offers small group tours, and increased rates a little bit to $68.77 for those ages 14 and up, and $50 for children under 12 to compensate for the changes.
“We increased our rates a little bit because we’re taking less people, but everyone I’ve talked to really understands,” said manager Iwa Shaw, “and they see value in having less people on board.”
Makai expects to run its tours through mid-April, and expects to be able to survive this pandemic. Shaw said seats sell out quickly, and besides keeping eight employees, the company has even been able to hire a few.
On Oahu, Star of Honolulu began offering a new Waikiki Whale Watch Cruise aboard its Dolphin Star, a two-deck catamaran.
The morning cruise will depart from Ala Wai Boat Harbor and travel along the Honolulu coastline three times a week, and be available through the end of March.
A break for the whales?
Did humpback whales get a vacation from human- driven boats at the tail end of last season?
That is difficult to ascertain, according to Lyman, given that whale research stopped in mid-March last year, although a hint of how they responded might come from underwater acoustic water recordings.
According to researcher Marc Lammers, who specializes in acoustic monitoring, the whales in 2020 kept singing both pre-and post-COVID lockdowns. Last year, the singing persisted a bit later into the season than the previous year.
However, this is consistent with a “lengthening trend” in the whale season since 2016, he said. Also, he said whale migration patterns are influenced more by ecosystem trends than local human activity.
Scientists had been concerned about humpback whales after several years of a decline in sightings from 2015 to 2018, but were encouraged to see a bounce back in following years.
“The population is most likely still bouncing back from the significant disruptions it experienced a few years ago,” said Lammers in an email. “It will be interesting to see how this year’s season compares and whether the trend of lengthening seasons continues.”