August 27th, 2016 (Lee Imada). A humpback whale in distress that may be the first whale of the 2016-17 season was sighted by a Blue Hawaiian helicopter and two vessels Thursday.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary said Friday that it received a report of a humpback whale in distress off Olowalu by the chopper conducting a sedimentation and erosion survey with Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case on board.
The Large Whale Response Network initiated a rapid response effort to document and assess the whale with assistance from the West Maui Response team and the U.S. Coast Guard, the sanctuary said. Members of the on-water community, including tour companies, assisted with locating and monitoring the whale.
The Coast Guard and sanctuary team found the humpback whale in the late afternoon and identified it as an adult in poor condition, the sanctuary said. The animal was emaciated, very light colored, rough-skinned and covered in cyamid amphipods, also known as whale lice. At least four sharks were trailing the animal.
“These are all indicators of a whale in distress,” the sanctuary said. “However, the whale is not entangled and does not show any signs of trauma from being struck by a vessel; these are two of the main threats to humpback whales in Hawaii. The cause of the animal’s poor condition remains a mystery at this time.”
A sighting in August is unusual because the first sightings of the endangered and protected humpback whale are typically in September or October, the sanctuary said. Humpback whales generally visit Hawaii waters from November through May, when they breed, give birth and nurse their calves.
“It is difficult to determine whether this is one of the first sightings of a humpback whale for this upcoming season or if this whale has stayed around from last season,” the sanctuary said.
Greg Kaufman, founder of the Pacific Whale Foundation, said Friday that he believes this whale could be the first whale of the 2016-17 season. He said that the longtime nonprofit foundation has not reported any sightings in Hawaii waters since June 1.
The foundation’s research vessel runs weekly transects off the coast of Maui, and the foundation’s eight ecotour vessels track whales, he said. In fact, one of those vessels on a sunset dinner cruise, the Ocean Quest, spotted the whale about three-quarters of a mile off Olowalu.
“It is unlikely a whale that has over-summered and not gone to the feeding grounds,” said Kaufman.
The sub-adult whale could have wandered about and shown up very late in last season’s migration, found a seamount, ate some fish, got distracted and went southwest instead of northeast like the rest of the whales.
Another possible scenario is that the whale may have migrated from another breeding ground, such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan or the Marianas, and went west instead of northeast toward the West Coast, Alaska or Pacific Northwest feeding grounds, he said.
“A remote possibility” is that this whale is from the southern hemisphere and crossed the equator, but this is “highly unlikely due to its coloration.” The whale has the black body typically associated with North Pacific humpback whales, Kaufman said.
Under these scenarios, the whale would represent the first sighting of the new season, Kaufman said.
“Once the whales have left, we would consider any whales in August as new arrivals,” he said.
Prior to this sighting, the earliest whale appearance logged by the foundation was Sept. 16, 2000. The foundation has been tracking first-whale sightings since 1998.
Kaufman added that there has been an increasing number of humpback whales feeding along the West Coast, much farther south than the normal feeding grounds of southeast Alaska.
“If this trend continues, it may lead to earlier arrivals due to shorter migration times between feeding and breeding grounds,” Kaufman said.
“Perhaps one day, humpback whales could stay year-round, given a shift in prey source in the North Pacific,” he continued. “In the past 40 years, I have seen arrivals shift from early December to late September, so anything is possible.”
At least 12,000 humpback whales are believed to migrate to Hawaiian waters each winter, with their numbers increasing 7 percent per year, Kaufman said.
Mariners are asked to keep a lookout for whales in distress but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them, the sanctuary said. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program are permitted to assist whales and other marine mammals.
Those who see any marine mammal in distress should maintain 100 yards distance and call the NOAA 24-hour toll-free hotline at (888) 256-9840. If unable to call, radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16, and it will relay the report.