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Probably the most beloved of all whale species, the Humpback whale, was subjected to centuries of intense human predation. In the centuries before an international whaling industry developed, as many as 1.5 million Humpbacks swam the worldwide oceans. But commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries decimated this population. Today, Humpbacks are internationally protected and recovering, with an estimated population of 80,000 worldwide. However, Japan is making plans to resume the hunting of Humpbacks in the near future.
The Humpback whale has been on the international endangered species list since 1964, when mechanized commercial whaling had reduced the number of known Humpbacks to a mere 1,000 worldwide. Since attaining the endangered protection and benefiting from a ban on the commercial harvest of the Humpback species, recent counts of the whales in Hawaiian waters during the winter season have reached up to 10,000, clear evidence that the endangered species is recovering from the brink of extinction with this special protection in place.
The current abundance estimate for the North Pacific generally is about 20,000 Humpback whales. For the North Atlantic, the best available estimate is 11,570 whales. In fact, Humpbacks are increasing in abundance over most of their range. In the Southern Hemisphere, Humpback abundance prior to commercial exploitation is estimated at 100,000 whales. Including illegal unreported Soviet whaling, there were an estimated 200,000 Southern Hemisphere Humpback whales harvested from 1904 to1980. The current Southern Hemisphere population may be over 25,000 Humpbacks, although there is little data on which to base this estimate.
Humpback whales face a series of threats including entanglement in fishing gear (by catch), ship strikes, whale watch harassment, habitat impacts, and proposed harvest.
While there is no current legal commercial harvest of Humpback whales, there is interest by some countries to resume Humpback harvest. Japan has proposed killing 50 Humpback whales as part of its program of scientific research under special permit (scientific whaling) called JARPA II in the IWC management areas IV and V in the Antarctic. Also, Denmark recently proposed a hunt of 10 Humpbacks a year off the coast of Greenland. Both of these proposed harvests have the potential to negatively impact recovery of Humpback whales.
The popular TV show "Whale Wars" on the Animal Planet channel follows the adventures the non-profit Sea Shepherd organization, whose mission is "Defending Ocean Wildlife Worldwide," The show chronicles the adventures of Captain Paul Watson and his crew of 42 using 3 ships and 2 helicopters in their struggle to end Japanese whaling, primarily in the Antarctic
Not all Humans actions towards the whales are harmful. One way we have chosen to take advantage of the whales is to enhance our understanding and appreciation of them through whale-watch cruises and other types of eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is a non-consumptive method of "using" wildlife species to make a profit without directly harming or killing them.
Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat. Increasingly, many nations of the world have come to realize that living whales have more economic value as marine resources than they do for dinner. In many places, especially Hawaii, whale watching has become a lucrative business. Other nations including Norway, which has expressed a strong interest in resuming commercial whaling, are launching whale-watch programs with successful results, too.
Whales are watched most commonly for recreation but the activity can also serve scientific or educational purposes. A 2009 study, prepared for International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), estimated that 13 million people went whale watching globally in 2008, up from 9 million ten years earlier. Commercial whale watching operations were found in 119 countries employing around 13,000 workers. Direct revenue of whale watching trips was estimated at USD$872.7 million and indirect revenue of $2.1 billion was spent by whale watchers in tourism-related businesses. The size and rapid growth of the industry has led to complex and continuing debates with the whaling industry about the best use of whales as a natural resource.
Organized whale watching dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public venue for observing Gray Whales. In 1955 the first water-based whale watching began in the same area, charging customers $1.00 per trip to view whales at closer quarters. By 1985 more visitors watched whales from New England than California. The rapid growth in this area has been attributed to the relatively dense population of Humpback Whales, whose acrobatic behavior such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping thrilled observers, and the close proximity of whale populations to the large cities there.
Conservationists argue that a whale is worth more alive and watched than dead. Their goal is to persuade their governments to curtail whaling activities. It is clear from most coastal communities that are involved in whale watching that profits can be made and are more equitably distributed throughout the community than if the animals were killed by a whaling industry.
The three major whaling nations - Norway, Japan and Iceland - have large and growing whale watching industries. Upon the resumption of whaling in Iceland in August 2003, pro-whaling groups, such as fishermen who argue that increased stocks of whales deplete fish populations, suggested that sustainable whaling and whale watching could live side-by-side.
Pro-whaling organizations claim that whale watching is not profitable and that some whale-watching companies in Iceland are surviving only because they receive funding from anti-whaling organizations.
Whale watching is of particular importance to developing countries. Coastal communities have started to profit directly from the whales' presence, significantly adding to popular support for the protection of these animals from commercial whaling.
The rapid growth of the number of whale watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales may affect whale behavior, migratory patterns and breeding cycles. There is now strong evidence that whale watching can significantly affect the biology and ecology of whales and dolphins.
Environmental campaigners, concerned by what they consider the "quick-buck" mentality of some boat owners, continue to strongly urge all whale watcher operators to contribute to local regulations governing whale watching (no international standard set of regulations exist because of the huge variety of species and populations).
• Minimize speed/"No wake" speed
• Avoid sudden turns
• Minimize noise
• Do not pursue, encircle or come in between whales
• Approach animals from angles where they will not be taken by surprise
• Consider cumulative impact - minimize number of boats at any one time/per day
Almost all popular whale watching regions now have such regulations. Campaigners hope that a combination of political pressure, free advertising and promotion by ethical tourism operators and boat operators' personal passion for marine wildlife compel them to adhere to such regulations.
Federal Laws and Regulations
In the United States all species of whales, including the Humpbacks, are protected by two federal laws: The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972; The Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In addition, there are specific regulations on approaching Humpback whales in Hawaiian waters. These regulations are meant to ensure that Humpback whales are not disturbed or harassed in the course of human activities. These regulations are listed below.
It is unlawful to:
1. Operate any aircraft within 1,000 feet of a Humpback whale.
2. Approach by any means (ie., by boat or by swimming) closer than 100 yards of any Humpback whale or closer than 300 yards of a Humpback mother and calf.
3. Disrupt the normal behavior or activity of a Humpback whale. This is considered a form of harassment.
Violators of these regulations may be prosecuted by the Federal government and may be subject to penalties of up to $25,000 for each violation or penalty. If you witness an incident or suspect a violation of any of these laws or regulations, you are encouraged to contact the law enforcement office of the National Marine Fisheries Service at (808) 541-2730.
Whale watching cruises have contributed to the awareness of and support for this special creature, the Humpback Whale, and its habitat. The whale-watch industry draws almost one million visitors to Hawaii each year, resulting in tourist income for the state of more than 100 million dollars annually.
Hawaii whale watching cruises are available from many of the islands, including Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai. Vessels available for your choice range from larger vessels for a stable comfortable ride for all levels and special needs to rigid, inflatable hulled boats for a more rugged, close-to-the-water adventure. Whale watching by kayak is also available from Maui. On all Hawaii whale watching tours, on-board naturalists present Humpback whale facts and local history to enhance the experience.
Kauai Whale Watch Discovery Cruises: