HONOLULU — An investigation is under way of reports that three vessels collided with whales in less than 24 hours off the coast of Maui and the Big Island.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held a news conference Wednesday in which the agency reported that two of the collisions occurred off Maui. The other involved a whale that flipped a canoe Tuesday in waters off Keauhou on the Big Island.
One of the Maui collisions involved a whale calf about a half-mile off Lahaina Harbor at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday. Blood was seen in the water after the collision, NOAA official David Schofield said. He said the other collision was on Wednesday and involved a whale out of Maalaea Harbor. People reported the whale sustained three propeller slashes. The wounds did not appear life-threatening.
Schofield said he did not have details about the speed of the vessels involved, or whether the vessels were at fault.
“It is part of the investigation and is ongoing,” he said.
Reports of whale-vessel collisions fluctuate from year to year but have on average been increasing as the number of humpbacks and vessels increase in Hawaii waters.
Federal officials said the numbers ranged from one to four per year in the years 2001-2005, and five to 11 per year from 2006 to 2010. The numbers dropped in 2011 and 2012, with two each.
The whale-canoe strike occurred about a quarter-mile off Keauhou. The 60-year-old paddler suffered cuts on his arms from jagged ends of his broken canoe but was not seriously hurt.
Konawaena High School paddling coach Paul Daugherty said he and his team met the man as he loaded his shattered carbon-fiber canoe onto his truck. The man saw the whale right below the surface and believed it to be a calf, he said.
“It came up underneath him and lifted him up,” Daugherty said. “He said he just got launched.”
The canoe broke just aft of the seat, he said.
Daugherty said the man told him he was in the water 15 minutes before being rescued by a tour boat.
Schofield said that while some scientists are investigating whether baleen whales have sonar, it’s widely held that they do not, but they do have excellent hearing and eyesight.
He added that most vessel strikes are made by calves, which he said are like “inexperienced children.”
While federal law requires boaters to maintain a distance of 100 yards from a humpback whale, newborns surface frequently and suddenly, increasing the chances of a collision.
The seasonal migration from Alaska to Hawaii has increased to more than 10,000 humpback whales — a significant increase from the 1,000 estimated in 1979.