‘Whales are an Icon’

Three decades ago Greg Kaufman would wake early in the morning and strap a zodiac to the top of his Datsun station wagon. Then he’d leave his home in Makena and drive along the Kihei coast and around the Pali, scouring the wide southern waters for the telltale sprays of humpback whales. After spotting one, he and a small team of researchers would race to the nearest beach, put the tiny boat in the water and head out to collect whatever information they could gather on these enormous, majestic creatures. This is how the Pacific Whale Foundation came into being.

Back then humpback sightings were few and far between; an estimated count totaled only 600 North Pacific humpback whales during peak season in Hawai‘i in the early 1980s. That’s a far cry from 6,000 or more that migrate now to the state’s warm, shallow waters from their feeding grounds in Alaska and the Bering Sea, making Maui the whale wonderland that it is.

All along Kaufman, president and owner of the Ma‘alaea-based Pacific Whale Foundation, has been watching the waters and studying the whales, collecting information about their elusive reproductive nature and playful behaviors, lobbying on behalf of their safety and educating residents and visitors. He’s had his hands in research projects around the world, and now has over 150 employees and volunteers, many working on research projects in Australia and Ecuador. He’s been a powerful advocate for the protection of humpbacks here and around the world. 

Recently Kaufman spent many grueling hours on the witness stand at the Hawai‘i Superferry hearings, passionately testifying on the protection of the humpbacks in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, which the Superferry travels through getting between Oahu and Maui. Kaufman and a small group of colleagues have protested the arrival of the gargantuan ship that will travel at speeds nearly twice what other vessels are allowed to go in Sanctuary waters.

Superferry officials and lawyers countered with the argument that small vessels, like the seven owned by the Pacific Whale Foundation, are involved in whale collisions each year, too—more, in fact, than would potentially involve the Superferry.

This is at least partially true. As many as 1,000 uncoordinated, inexperienced baby humpbacks are being born off the sandy shores of Maui this winter. They’ve been compared to human toddlers and the water they swim in to a human nursery. According to National Sanctuary figures, seven injured humpbacks—mostly calves—were reported injured by boat collisions in 2006.

One of those involved a Pacific Whale Foundation vessel. In March 2006, a group of young children were aboard the 65-foot Ocean Spirit when it hit a mother whale and its calf, injuring the young humpback. The foundation came under intense scrutiny from the Maui public and press for the incident.

But Kaufman says the real threat to whales is not whale watching, fishing or recreational vessels, but fast-moving ships like the Superferry. In an effort to reduce the number of small craft collisions, the Pacific Whale Foundation offers workshops to educated vessel captains, boaters, kayakers, paddlers and anyone else about safe water practices.

I spoke with Kaufman about these issues, as well as a happy new problem we face here in the breeding grounds of the Humpback whales as they continue to thrive and multiply:

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: Why are you so passionate about humpback whales?

GREG KAUFMAN: Whales are an icon, a sort of face to the ocean. They give personality to this blue desert that we look out over all the time. If you talk to many people that live here on Maui they’ll tell you that they feel sad when the whales leave. It’s comforting looking out and seeing the splash of a whale. But more importantly, there’s something very mysterious about them, I think that whales can represent something magical and mysterious to everyone.

What motivated you to start studying whales?

Well, I’m a scientist. Growing up in Oregon I was sort of a nature kid. Someone who always wanted to turn over a rock to see what was under it. Back then it was very interesting to me that when it came to the ocean, and particularly about whales, we just didn’t know anything about them. We knew we could use them for oil and cosmetics, but we didn’t know anything about their lives and natures. To me, it really appealed to my pioneering spirit. I thought, here’s a field that I could go into, that no one’s going into at the time, and really look under the waves and start to answer this question, which is, What are whales? 

You’ve been watching these whales for at least 30 years, and the Pacific Whale Foundation began operating educational whale watching tours in 1980. How has whale watching in Maui changed over time?

They were really like booze cruises at the time, with whales thrown in. In terms of actual whale watching, few boats were really doing it because there just weren’t that many whales out there. You could go days without seeing a whale. Even now there’s still a limited number of boats that offer bonafide whale watches. Not snorkel trips or cocktail cruises, but actual stand-on-the-deck-looking-for-whales trips. It’s a challenge because to do a whale watch effectively, you’ve got to understand the whales. You have to know how to drive around the whales, you have to be able to inform the public about what’s going on and invoke some sense of conservation or change.

How do Pacific Whale Foundation’s EcoAdventures accomplish that?

Ultimately what we’re after at Pacific Whale Foundation is some behavior modification. We try to use whales, turtles and dolphins to turn people on to the ocean and teach them that if they can modify their behaviors slightly to recycle and protect the environment it will have a long term effect on the ocean.

You say you’re goal is to lead by example. How does the Foundation do this? 

[We use] biodiesel on our vessels. We no longer have cups on our boats. We have things made out of corn and potatoes and we have a complete recycling program. We have our own pump-out truck to pump waste from our own boats. In fact, we’re setting the bar high and building the first solar and wind power vessel that creates zero emissions. It will be operating in the first quarter of 2009.

Recently the Japanese government backed down from its threat to hunt and kill 50 humpback whales in Australian sanctuary waters. What was the mood like at the Foundation when the news came in?

We were ecstatic. But, like I told my staff, I’ve been around the block enough to know that this is all about trade. It’s all about getting something. I think they played their one trump card which is the humpback whale and there going to now push for a resumption of commercial whaling, but for certain species that they think us greenies would be happy about. 

Would environmentalists be happy about killing any whales?

The lesson is that this issue is geopolitical. It’s not just about saving whales; it’s about trade, defense and international agreements and human rights. On the worldwide scale, whales are a commodity. But to Americans and lots of people, without overstating it, whales are an icon. 

Speaking of killing whales, do you feel your warnings were heeded in the hearing on whether the Superferry could run without completing an environmental impact statement (EIS)?

The greatest threat to humpback whales is from fast moving ships, not small boats. We know large ships are the ones that hit and kill whales. Someone asked me when I was testifying before the house, “Are you a no EIS guy or a no Superferry guy?” And I said, “I’m a pro-environment guy.”

But a Pacific Whale Foundation boat hit a whale in 2006. What happened there?

We were mortified. We weren’t running down a whale or chasing it, just traveling from Point A to Point B at 13 knots, on dead flat seas, with 70 pairs of eyes watching the water when a mother whale surfaced directly under our boat with no forewarning.  In 30 years studying whales I never thought a whale would approach a moving vessel like that. We realized we had to do more, so we designed whale protection devices, like rubber bumpers and rubberized rudders.

Isn’t there a preponderance of strikes by small vessels?

No. Any vessel, from a canoe to a battleship, can hit a whale. Smaller vessels are more likely to report it, and being around whales is a challenge for all boaters. But large vessels might not even know when they hit whales. None of our boats weigh as much as a whale. The Superferry weighs 10 times as much as a whale without cargo, 20 times when loaded and travels though whale waters at speeds of 25 to 30 knots. At that speed that much mass will cause serious damage to a whale, and 80 percent of the time kill it. Tell me there’s not a high likelihood that something like a Superferry presents a clear and present danger to humpback whales.

In any case, you’re against the Superferry operating in sanctuary waters in Hawai‘i, right?

I want to find a solution here, and that was what I testified about in court. I gave them a solution. When I went to meet with the governor for three hours, I gave her a list of 13 conditions I thought were very fair. I showed her routes that I believe the Superferry can travel and have minimal impact on the humpbacks and in areas they would have impact, the speeds the ferry should have traveled. She didn’t buy it. The Superferry didn’t buy it. 

So they didn’t heed any of your warnings about protecting the humpbacks?

They didn’t want any change to what they were offering. They’ve come across looking greedy and ignorant. The arrogance and ignorance they’ve shown the public has been mind boggling to me. They should not have been able to go in business without ensuring that they had minimal impact and had complied with all the environment laws.

And they’re operating today. What now?

It’s a matter of, do I like this as a business or not? Will I be buying the Superferry product? No. Consumers aren’t stupid. My prediction is that the Superferry will go out of business in 90 days, sooner if they hit a whale. It’s a bad business model.

As the humpbacks increase in numbers, won’t the number of collisions with them keep increasing?

One day we are going to get to a point where the whales are going to recover and get in good numbers. When that day that happens, we have a new problem on our hands, a public safety problem. Can you imagine a day when there are so many whales out there that anyone who wants to use the waters can’t do so without some form of peril? That is, you might run into a whale, might bump it with your kayak or windsurf boat, your fishing boat, your whale watch boat or your Superferry?

I can’t imagine that. The humpbacks have been endangered for so long.

 That day is now. We’ve seen it in the last several years, an increase of strikes. You’ve got a thousand little floating reefs out there. That’s the new message: the whales are in greater numbers and they’re here for longer periods of time and in the face of this we’ve got to adapt. The public now has to change their behaviors. The whales are going to force us to do that. MTW

Comments

comments