By Rebecca Bluitt, Special to CNN
Off the Hawaiian coast, the humpback whale is thrilling spectators and scientists alike with its acrobatic jumps, complex songs – and its spectacular recovery.
“When we started there was talk of whales in the hundreds out here,” says Jim Darling, renowned whale researcher and co-founder of Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit devoted to studying whales in the waters of the Hawaiian island. “Now in the North Pacific the best estimates are about 20,000 whales.”
“They become part of the local culture a little bit. And that’s sort of seeping into the national culture,” says Darling, referring to the booming whale-watching industry. Whale tourism added an estimated $2 billion to the global economy last year, a number that is expected to increase by 10% each year.
About the size of a school bus and weighing an average of 45 tons, the humpback whale is an impressive creature. But they weren't always such a visible part of the Hawaiian seascape. Their recent comeback from near extinction at the hand of whale hunters is as remarkable as the animals themselves, and has wildlife experts in awe of their recovery capabilities.
“The fact that they’ve been able to come back like this proves that it is possible, if we give them half a chance,” Darling says.
Strict international restrictions on whaling, implemented in 1966, gave the humpback population its chance to rebound. But is 20,000 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific really that many?
“When you think about it, it’s not,” Darling says. “I mean, think about how many people attend a football game, you know? It’s a little chunk of a stadium. But ... it’s so many more than were here."
It’s enough of a recovery, some argue, that the North Pacific humpback whale should be taken off of the federal list of endangered species altogether. The Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition recently petitioned for removing the North Pacific humpback from the list, claiming that the whales' population increase warrants a reexamination of the current restrictions on fishing practices.
And Japan, the largest whaling country in the world, is already utilizing a loophole in anti-whaling laws to kill some species of whales. Hunters claim the carcasses are used for scientific research – gathering information on the animals’ age, diet, and birthing rate – before the meat is packaged and sold.
In 2007, Japanese whalers insisted that the humpback’s comeback justified adding the whales to their list of prospective prey. But outcry from the international community has forced them to back down, at least for now.
Darling believes this long-term conflict between humans and humpbacks is the greatest threat to the whales' future.
“As far as entanglements and vessel collisions, we can slow boats down, or we can warn vessels when there are whales in the area, or we can come up with different kinds of fishing gear which maybe reduces the entanglements. There are ways to sort of tackle those issues," he says.
"The bigger ones of how we’re all going to survive in the long run are going to be a little more challenging.”
It's a challenge, Darling says, that Whale Trust Maui is ready to tackle.