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Whale of a business

Pacific Business News (Honolulu) – February 27, 2004 by Nina Wu Pacific Business News

Maui gets an economic boost from its giant winter visitors and the people who come to watch them

With a pod of whales swimming in the waters up ahead, the tourists peer furtively at the ocean for a glimpse of a fin or fluke, gasp out several “oohs” and “aahs” and aim their camera lenses from the deck of the boat.

Whale-watching, once the domain of the diehard naturalist, is now a must-do activity for visitors to Hawaii, and they flock to Maui — the birthing and breeding waters for the humpback whale. It’s a fast-growing, multimillion-dollar industry driven by growing demand from consumers who want an up-close experience in the wild.

“It’s definitely growing,” said Toni Marie Davis, director of the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii. “There’s been a more holistic view of whale-watching, where most operators are giving profits back into some type of research or preservation. Most are now affiliated with some type of nonprofit entity.”

She lists whale-watching among the top-ranking activities on Maui, along with luaus, biking Haleakala Crater and helicopter tours.

Prices for a whale-watching trip on Maui range from $20 to $60 when packaged with snorkeling or a dinner cruise. Approximately 17 tour operators on the island cater exclusively to whale watchers. Most offer a guaranteed-sighting coupon, meaning visitors can return if they see no whales.

On Maui, that’s not likely during the peak season, which runs from January through April, though the tours run until May. With more than 3,500 whales visiting Hawaiian waters in the winter, visitors usually can see whales within minutes of leaving the harbor.

“The water’s so shallow between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe,” Davis said. “Since whales are coming here to either birth or mate, shallower waters are more protected. So in essence, we really are their vacation destination.”

Larger boats and new technology make it more accessible for anyone, from babies to nonswimmers to the elderly, to go on a whale-watch tour. While the focus used to center around the experience of a sunset cruise, with whale sightings along the way, the whales are now the focus of attention, said Ron Howard of Paradise Cruises.

The Pacific Whale Foundation, which began in 1980, operates boats that hold up to 149 passengers, with a certified naturalist on board to talk about breaching whales, their biology and behavior. Its newest boat, the Ocean Voyager, features theater-like seating at the prow, runs on biodiesel fuel and uses a low-emissions engine.

The foundation, an international nonprofit group that conducts education, research and conservation, also has a for-profit arm that runs whale-watch tours. With six boats offering 15 cruises a day, seven days a week, and a full-scale store at the Maui Ocean Center that sells souvenirs, T-shirts and other gift items, the foundation is more than self-sufficient.

“Among Maui whale watchers, we have a higher percentage of repeat visitors,” said Anne Rillero, director of marketing. “Because it’s different every time, the customers are repeat visitors who come again and again. We want to establish relationships with our customers. We invite them to join the foundation.”

Growing interest in whale-watching tours has resulted in more-crowded waters, both from tour operators and private boats, creating a cry for better enforcement of existing laws.

“What’s happening is the commercial permits are fixed, so the number of businesses competing doesn’t change,” said Toni Marie Davis, director of the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii. “What changes is the size of the vessel.”

Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, whale-watch tour operators are required to remain at least 100 yards from humpback whales. They can idle their engines and let the whales approach the boat — but cannot move. Aircraft must remain at least 1,000 feet above whale pods.

Jeff Walters, co-manager of the state’s humpback whale sanctuary, said humpback whales are listed as an endangered, indigenous wildlife. Harassment of the mammals is considered a misdemeanor.

Unfortunately, accidents and collisions do occur. Most recently, witnesses saw a speedboat ram into a baby whale. On Christmas Day 2003, 3-year-old Ryker Hamilton died after hitting his head aboard the American Dream off Oahu when the boat allegedly either struck a whale or moved to avoid it.

Attorney Rick Fried, who represents the Hamilton family in a suit against American Dream, said he may still go to trial.

“This was like a rear-end auto accident,” he said. “He [the captain] never did anything to slow down or avoid hitting it [the whale]. I think the rules are fine if they’re adhered to.”

Between 1975 and 2003, there were 22 vessel collisions with whales reported in Hawaii, according to an Aug. 23, 2003, report prepared for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The number of incidents has risen over the years, from six between 1985 and 1994 to 14 between 1995 and 2003.

Most Maui tour operators called the American Dream incident a “freak accident” and said it isn’t likely to happen.

Josh Munns of Ultimate Whale Watch said the accident did not affect his business, though more customers inquire about safety.

“For the most part, tour boat operators do a really good job,” he said. “It’s your casual boaters and people on weekends that need to be looked at. I see it all the time.”

Gregory Kaufman, founder of the Pacific Whale Foundation, believes in taking a proactive approach to preventing collisions. In March, the foundation will invite about 20 boat captains to a forum to finalize “best-practices” guidelines for whale watching. For instance, Kaufman said, the recommended speed around whales is 15 knots or less.

Most tour operators tend to monitor one another, Walters said, and in many cases they also will help each other locate whales.

The North Pacific humpback whale population is believed to be increasing at a rate of 7 percent each year, according to the foundation.

Naomi McIntosh, acting manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said private tour operators and the sanctuary have a mutual interest — to protect whales and see their population numbers go up.