Hawaii: A Sanctuary for Whales

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” said Ishmael.  “All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.” Herman Melville wrote this passage in Moby-Dick describing an idea that all people are bound to some fate, of which the true nature often reveals itself in a moment of crisis. By tragic necessity, Ishmael and the men in the small whaleboat were literally bound by the whale-lines to the fate of the whales they harpooned. Could Melville have realized how this stunning metaphor, linking the hunted and hunter, would foretell a future struggle where the fate of whales and people was once again locked in a test of survival?   

Although this could be a story based on any whale species, here in Hawaii it is the humpbacks that have captured our imaginations and made these islands home. Their tale began long ago. For well over five million years, humpback whales enjoyed a beautiful and diverse sanctuary, abundant with all the necessities for life—a little place called Planet Earth. Within this sanctuary, thousands upon thousands of humpbacks proliferated and spread to the far corners of the seemingly endless oceans. Then one day, just before the turn of the 18th century, another inhabitant, who had existed alongside the whales for four million years, developed a new technology. It was called the steamship. Suddenly, humans could match the speed of these magnificent ocean dwellers wherever they might roam. On the front of these steamships, another invention—the explosive harpoon, that when paired with the blistering speed of the ships formed a deadly union that would forever alter the story of the humpbacks and the once fruitful oceans that supported these ancient mammals. 

Having decimated other slower whale species to extinction or near extinction, humans set their ever-evolving sights on humpbacks. Desperate for the whale’s oil, meat, and bones, humans reigned terror on these gentle giants with no mercy or forethought. In little over 100 years, mankind had managed to decimate the population of humpbacks. In the North Pacific, fewer than 1000 individual humpbacks would be all that remained of these once prolific creatures. Prior to modern whaling it is estimated that the population of humpbacks, largely taken from old whaling records, had been around 100,000-200,000.

However, new genetic research using the genetic variation in current whale populations suggests a historical record that numbered in the millions. If this is correct, or even remotely close to correct, the overwhelming blow we delivered to this valuable species is truly staggering. The eerie, harmonic songs the whales so loudly sing are an ironic melody, richly indicative of their perilous plight. Like so many other species, have we relegated them to the pages of history and the ancient folklore of days past?

Although much has been done to the docile humpback, there may still be a chance for them to break free from the yoke of the civilized world and regain their historic multitudes. Although the global sanctuary they once mastered is forever changed, there are places where once again, humpbacks can coexist with their fellow creatures as nature intended. One of those places happens to be right here in Hawaii. In 1992, the U.S. Congress created the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary with the goal to protect humpback whales and the habitat critical to their survival. This sanctuary extends from the shoreline out to the 600-ft depth mark in and around the four island areas of Maui and Penguin Bank, the North and South Shores of Oahu, the North Shores of Kauai and the Kona and Kohala Coasts on the Big Island. These protected waters are the only coastal habitat in the U.S. where humpbacks migrate for breeding and calving. The sanctuary stands out as a bastion of safety among only a handful of places on Earth where the humpback’s critical habitat receives this level of protection.

The first real attempt to regulate the whaling of humpbacks came in 1966. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) gave the mammals worldwide protection following 200 years of unchecked slaughter and harvesting. With voluntary membership and no enforcement, the IWC was a good start, but mostly a toothless tiger. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that a worldwide, anti-whaling movement began to take hold. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and the 1977 and 1981 Conventions on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) helped create the first real basis and momentum for banning whaling.

In the U.S., the 1973 Endangered Species Act identified humpbacks as an endangered species, a dubious distinction they still possess; and one that provides them with protection backed by judicial enforcement. Subsequently, they have gained security through the Marine Mammal Protection Act, The National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and state wildlife laws. Internationally, humpbacks are also guarded by further agreements under the IWC and subsequent CITES treaties.

Although humpbacks are still endangered, the brighter side of humanity has begun to shine new hope on the future of this species. In doing so, it may be our own future that we are actually saving. By helping whales, we ensure the health of the ecosystems we depend upon. The loss of so many individual whales, especially if the genetic population data proves correct, has a large impact on the rest of the ocean’s ecosystem. Whales help control the populations of smaller species they feed on, such as krill and small fish.

On the contrary, the vitality of larger species that prey on whales, such as sharks and killer whales, is transformed with a decline in their prey. Even upon dying, the large carcass of a humpback sinks to the ocean floor and provides nutrients for a whole new web of creatures. As natural balance in the ocean is controlled from the top down, the extensive loss of whales could cause implications to an entire ocean network that may be far greater than we can conceive. Although the decline of any one species may not impact most people in their day-to-day lives, scientists believe we have lost 90% of the ocean’s stock of tuna, cod, and other large predators since the dawn of the industrial age. These species form the basis of an intact ecology that we absolutely need to survive.

If that doesn’t register, well, just take a deep breath in. Now take another breath and feel as it invigorates your muscles and feeds your oxygen-hungry cells. Organisms that thrive in the ocean contribute to producing most of the oxygen you just enjoyed. If you like breathing, then you’ll probably want to take an interest in ocean creatures, such as the humpbacks.    

Even with the best protection from harvesting, humpbacks are still subject to other threats. Their long migratory routes are a slalom course of noise pollution, entanglements, vessel strikes, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Humpback whaling still occurs by nations such as Japan, despite their worldwide recognition as endangered by the IUCN’s 2009 Red List. Even larger disturbances such as climate change affect whales’ foraging habitats by reducing the amount of krill, which have a close relationship with the diminishing Antarctic sea ice. A krill’s ability to form a hard body shell may also be stressed by ocean acidification from an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These are just a few of the many challenges humpbacks must overcome.

It is apparent that the slogan “save the whales” has to do with so much more than just banning the whaling market. All aspects of modern life, from the time we wake up in the morning to when we fall asleep at night, are supported by a long chain of materials and resources that are connected back to the foundation of the natural world. Whales are just a canary in the coalmine for the attitudes people have taken with these natural resources.

Like with so many other animals, if we choose to ignore their plight or not react with enough foresight, we will lose them forever. We will lose the invaluable ecological services they provide to the foundations we have built our societies upon. How many species will it take before that bedrock is dismantled? We are well down the path to finding out, but thankfully, there are other roads we can travel.  Each time we choose to live in a sustainable fashion or foster environmental consciousness, it is an opportunity to save the whales and thousands of others, including our own. Whales are great, but so are people. Let’s prove that we have faith in both, as our fates, like the men in the whaleboats, are intrinsically tied to one another.  


Great spots to view the majestic acrobatic mammals

Nearly 10,000 whales visit the Hawaiian waters yearly. Some great locations to whale watch: Kaupulehu, A-Bay, Kaunaoa (Mauna Kea) Beach, Hapuna Beach, Lapakahi State Park, Waipio Valley Lookout, Kiholo Bay, Punaluu Black Sand, Ka Lae.


For an amazing experience, go on a whale watch cruise with Body Glove Cruises (808) 326-7122 or Mauna Lani Sea Adventures (808) 885-7883.


How you can help conserve

Be aware of vessel safety regulations.  It is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards by sea and 1,000 feet by air.  Avoid vessel-whale collision by watching your speed and posting a lookout for humpbacks during whale season (Nov-May).  Protect the humpback whales habitat and ecosystem by properly disposing/recycling hazardous materials such as batteries, oils, paints and chemicals.  Prevent pesticides, herbicides, soil and fecal matter and other harmful chemicals from washing out to sea.  Prevent entanglement with marine debris by properly disposing of your trash (including cigarettes) and fishing gear.  Do not release balloons as they too often end up in the ocean and pose a threat to all marine life.  Do cut all plastic rings before disposing them.  Recycle all recyclables.  Get involved in a beach or reef cleanup either alone, with family or an organized group.  Get involved to ensure success of conservation programs so we may enjoy the majestic nature for generations to come. While you are here, you can join the annual Sanctuary Ocean Count and help gather important information on humpback whales in Hawaii. For more information, log on http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/. 

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