Season of Sanctuary:
Unusual Koholā Abundance and Incidents in Hawaiʻi
By Matt Malinowski
An active and eventful humpback whale season is underway in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, with months still remaining.
Each fall, Koholā (humpback whales) begin to return from colder feeding grounds to the warmth of their home within Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Thousands of humpbacks winter in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands to breed, birth, and nurse their young. Sightings of the colossal marine mammals peak between the months of January and March, then gradually decline until humpback season ends in early May. Each year provides opportunities for whale watching, research, and citizen science, and the need for entanglement response. As the 2022 season reaches its midpoint, a flurry of action has already occurred as the sanctuary teems with thousands of humpbacks.
The abundance of whales within the sanctuary provides an opportunity for scientists to study trends and collect data. Research Ecologist Marc Lammers outlines that this season's efforts focus on acoustic monitoring, whale abundance surveys, and behavioral studies. Customized moorings record acoustic energy levels produced by singing male humpbacks, while surveys help to map abundance of whales and the timing of migrations. Sophisticated scientific instruments are attached to whales using specialized suction cups.
“These instruments can help answer questions including what kinds of sounds whales are exposed to in sanctuary waters, how humpbacks use sound to communicate with each other, and how they budget their energy while fasting in Hawai'i,” Lammers says. (Hawai'i humpbacks travel to Alaska and other colder locations to feed during summer months.)
Each year from January through March, the sanctuary offers an exciting opportunity for people to participate as citizen scientists collecting data through the Ocean Count program, which supports sanctuary research. Participants count whales from Hawaiian shorelines and document behaviors, providing researchers with a snapshot of whale activity across multiple sites. Though the February 2022 count is not open to volunteers due to COVID-19 restrictions, organizers are hopeful that open participation will be available for the survey in March.
Whale entanglement serves as a stark reminder of human threats to wildlife. Already this season, dozens of reports involving entangled humpbacks have been made with at least seven individual whales confirmed as entangled. Ghost gear and marine debris of different types and lengths wraps around whales, often hindering their ability to swim and feed. Their massive size and the open ocean environment can make response efforts a dangerous and complex task. Though large in scale, it is easy to lose track of a whale in the expanse of the ocean. Weather, time of day, location, and access to resources can also factor into whether a successful entanglement response can be mounted.
Despite these challenges, five individual animals have already been helped this season by a team of trained professionals from NOAA and its partners. The team works under the authorization of the NOAA Fisheries' Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (permit no. 18786-06). Natural Resource Specialist Ed Lyman reported that “more than 3,000 feet of line has been removed from the animals, significantly increasing their chance of survival.”
Removed gear is recovered when possible and studied to determine its origin and if any lessons can be learned to avoid future whale entanglements. Previous investigations have uncovered that humpback whales have carried gear into the sanctuary from high-latitude feeding grounds as far as 2,500 nautical miles away.
One of the whales disentangled this season was a yearling with a mooring buoy trailing from its tail fluke. The young animal was freed from 140 feet of gear and an estimated 700 lbs of weight by the response team and granted a new chance at survival. Another case involved a nursing mother with gear wrapped tightly around her head and trailing marine debris. Her calf remained by her side and a male followed in tow while the multi-agency Pacific Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Team mounted a six-hour response. Rescuers used a specialized knife with an angled blade to cut away more than 550 feet of gear. Cameras and drones helped the rescuers identify where to safely cut until the mother was finally freed. After the mother's release, the young calf tucked itself under its mother's chin as they both slipped into resting behavior.
Learning From Tragedy
On February 6, NOAA Fisheries responded to a report of a deceased humpback whale calf on Oʻahu. After study, it was determined that the probable cause of death was from a traumatic brain injury; the likely culprit being a vessel strike. Researchers were able to determine that the young calf was a male and had been successfully nursing.
Vessel-whale collisions occur yearly inside the sanctuary during humpback whale season. This season, new boating guidance was released by the state of Hawaiʻi in conjunction with NOAA and the Pacific Whale Foundation to lessen the likelihood of strikes. Boaters are reminded to stay vigilant, keep their distance, and avoid speeds in excess of 15 knots around the gentle giants.
As we approach the halfway point of whale season, incident numbers for 2022 have already reached typical annual numbers. We welcome our Koholā and enjoy this unusual opportunity for whale watching and research. The level of abundance this year also means that we must remain vigilant in our protection and response in the face of threats that exist today.
All drone footage was authorized under NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program Permits 18786-06.
Matt Malinowski is a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at Harvard University Extension School.
What To Do With a Whale in Distress
Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under a Marine Mammal Protection Act/Endangered Species Act permit issued to NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) are permitted to assist entangled whales and other marine mammals. Immediately reporting an entangled or otherwise injured or distressed whale, is the best way to help the animal.
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. If you are reporting a vessel coming too close to a whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964 or email email@example.com. Additional guidelines and safety tips can be found at https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/visit/recreation.html. New recommendations for boat speeds around humpbacks were recently announced by the State of Hawaiʻi.
It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means by sea or drone and closer than 1,000 feet by aircraft.
The sanctuary coordinates large whale entanglement response around much of the Hawaiian Islands, while working closely with and under NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office and NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources' MMHSRP and their greater response efforts and National Network. NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources provides overall oversight and authorizations. Due to the risks involved for animals and responders alike, large whale entanglement response is a permitted activity under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP.
A free online course by NOAA and partners provides guidance on how the on-water community can help entangled whales in Hawai‘i waters. The U.S. Whale Entanglement Response course helps fishermen, tour boat operators, and whale researchers better assist trained responders disentangle large whales.