On Saturday, Feb. 26, the Weekly took part in the popular eco-adventure known as whale watching aboard the Navetek I. The rain drizzled. The fog frosted the water. We sipped coffee and devoured what tasted like a home-cooked meal (peculiarly placed inside a ballroom-like dining area inside the vessel). State-of-the-art SWATH technology (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) provided a smooth and stable ride. Outdoor viewing decks and large windows and air-conditioned cabins made the experience comfortable and memorable.
After a final plate full of fruit and a piece of coconut cake, we saw them–three Humpback whales enjoying an afternoon swim near Diamond Head. No matter how long you’ve lived here, there’s nothing that stirs the senses quite like a breathing baleen staring back at you.
Lead naturalist for the Navatek, Bill Unruh, has managed a number of different vessels in his life, but says that the education component, and the fact that Navatek only hires naturalists with a marine biology background, is a significant difference compared to other tours offered around the islands. He says he isn’t surprised at the number of locals who continue to show up for the tours. “It’s the opportunity for a close-up of our seasonal visitors from Alaska that keeps them coming back,” he says.
We spoke with Unruh and Ken Kessler, the general manager for Navatek Operations to get a sense of what makes the Navatek special, and how their tours fit within the scope of eco-travel.
For those reading this who aren’t that familiar with the Humpback whale, can you give me some brief facts about them and how they end up in Hawaii’s waters each year? And maybe something most of us don’t know about these whales?
These whales are in Hawaii’s waters only during the winter months. They start arriving in later November and early December and they start departing in April. They migrate to Hawaii’s waters to mate and have their babies, and upon leaving Hawaii, they migrate to Alaska’s waters, a 3,000 mile epic journey.
What most people in Hawaii don’t realize is that if they go out snorkeling or scuba diving during the winter months, they might hear the Humpback singing. The human ear can pick up their song if they are singing within five miles, that’s how well sound can travel under water.
Also, Hawaii’s Humpback whales are part of the North Pacific pod, which also migrate down to Mexico’s waters. It’s estimated that our population of Humpbacks visiting Hawaii is now over 12,000 and steadily increasing each year.
I was surprised to see how much the Navatek respected the whales’ space while we were on board. In fact, there were times I was hoping you’d scoot a little closer.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 requires all commercial and private vessels to stay away from Humpback whales at least 100 yards. Our captains and crew have gone through training on this issue, because obviously, without the Humpback whales there would be no need for these types of tours, and as such we try even harder to be respectful of them. I’ve been impressed while working with the Navatek; sometimes it will appear a mother and calf may want some alone time and when we get this feeling we will move on and leave them alone.
On the tour, you mentioned how often whales are found covered in fishing line and other kinds of trash. Have you personally seen whales covered in trash?
No, I haven’t personally seen this. I’ve assisted in freeing reefs from entangled nets and other debris. If I did see this it would be very disheartening. Earlier this season it was reported there were nine Humpback whales that were entangled in Hawaii’s waters. Part of the reason for whales being entangled is that in order to make it to Hawaii’s waters they have to swim through the giant garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the US mainland. This giant garbage patch is a direct result of human impact.
I noticed that Atlantis, the company that owns the Navatek, recently won gold certification from the Hawaii Ecotourism Association for its green efforts. Can you tell me what’s “green” about the Navatek?
Navatek has made the transition to eco-friendly containers and cups for our disposables. They cost more, but it’s worth the extra cost. We also recycle our glass and cans. Food that’s left over gets donated to Aloha Harvest five days a week and they feed the hungry. Plus the activity of going out and seeing the wildlife and causing no harm teaches all on board to respect the wildlife on the earth and in the sea, opening people’s eyes to the biodiversity of the planet. On April 9, the Navatek is schedule for drydock, and during this drydock, new generators will be installed that will be more fuel-efficient, and upon completion, we will only need to operate one generator at a time (as opposed to two generators as it is currently) thus saving even more fuel.
Your most memorable tour experience?
It happened on Saturday, Feb. 11, of this year. We spotted the blows of seven Humpbacks shooting off in the distance, about a mile off Diamond Head. Their blows filled the air like fireworks shooting off in the horizon. There were six male Humpback whales competing for the only female. They were very competitive, doing head lunges on one another, tail and pectoral fin slaps on one another and even going under water and blowing bubbles at one another. This is the kind of thing you watch on the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel. It was very cool to watch, and I guess you could say it was fitting, as Valentine’s Day was just a few days away. You obviously cater to tourists, but are you surprised when locals attend the tours, for an eco-staycation?
No, not surprised at all. We frequently have someone new come on board who will see the Humpback whales from shore doing some activity and they come out as they want to get a closer look. Our success rate for the season is 91.4 percent, and we finished last season with a 95.7 percent success rate. So I think locals know we’re not sending them on a wild goose chase. You get what you pay for, and if we don’t experience a sighting on the day you’re there, we’ll give you a return receipt to come back again.