LIHU‘E — A boat is suspected of injuring a humpback whale spotted Monday morning in shallow waters off the Port Allen Airport.
However, the official cause of its apparently broken back remains undetermined, said Ed Lyman, a whale rescue expert with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary on Maui.
“We don’t know,” Lyman said after viewing aerial images of the adult humpback. “Definitely something’s wrong with it.”
A local flight instructor spotted and photographed the 50-plus-foot cetacean, which he continued to observe until about 1 p.m. It then disappeared.
“This is one of the most disturbing sights I’ve ever experienced while photographing whales,” Gerry Charlebois said in an e-mail.
The owner and instructor for the Birds In Paradise Flight School contends a large water craft caused the injury.
“It was freaky,” Charlebois said. “The whale was bent in half. Obviously some kind of blunt force trauma on the side. The poor guy was in trouble.”
After reviewing Charlebois’ photos, Lyman said the injury occurred in the whale’s mid-tail stock region, between its dorsal fin and tail. He added that it was light-colored, emaciated and had begun to slough-off skin. It also was surrounded by large numbers of whale lice — all indicators of a whale in poor health.
The humpback may have begun diving again or may have become less visible to Charlebois as it headed west toward Waimea. Murky runoff from the Waimea River decreases visibility in the water, Lyman said.
Although the whale is obviously injured, sanctuary staff members won’t be able to put it out of its misery, or likely learn the cause of its wound. First, they can’t find it. Secondly, the logistics of getting a humpback whale ashore are less than ideal.
There is no established technique for euthanizing a large whale, Lyman said.
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard stood by to assist with the marine mammal and to capture underwater images with pole cameras, but a northwest swell made it difficult to do such work, he said.
Other distressed whales in Hawai‘i
David Mattila, a research coordinator rescue adviser for the sanctuary, said he last received a similar report of a broken whale about 1996.
More recently, the sanctuary received a report of a possibly entangled whale on Monday off O‘ahu.
However, because it may have been a white flipper humpback whale, people who reported the shoreside sightings may have confused its fins with fishing gear or other equipment.
Another distressed whale was reported on Jan. 18. Someone spotted it dragging what appeared to be a net and a buoy off Na Pali Coast.
Officials lost track of the juvenile humpback that night, but it was re-sighted near Ni‘ihau some days later.
Lyman said that was its last confirmed sighting.
He said he believes it had been caught in lines while in Alaska.
“It’s not always fishing gear, the whales get caught in anything in the water column,” he said.
Since 2003, the sanctuary has received at least eight reports of whales carrying gear from as far as the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea and Wrangell, Alaska.
That’s 2,500 nautical miles from Hawai‘i, Lyman said.
Charlebois said he has seen many whales in trouble, but nothing came close to what he saw off Hanapepe on Monday.
“This is the first time I’ve seen one that was bent like that,” he said. “I see thousands of whales during the season because we’re in the air all day and we fly the coast.”
Such tour operations are a great resource to the sanctuary and whales, Lyman said, as they often report when the creatures are in distress.
“They’re out there, day in and day out,” Lyman said. “We all pitch in, we all work together.”
Anyone who sees a marine mammal in distress is encouraged to call the NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Response Hotline at (888) 256-9840.