Hawaii ferry adds whale-watch tech

Posted on: Sunday, October 19, 2008 – HONOLULU ADVERTISER
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Maui Bureau

Hawaii Superferry is installing a high-tech thermal imaging system that could detect whale spouts more than a mile away and reduce the risk of collisions with humpback whales.

Two of the devices, which cost $125,000 each, will be installed on the company’s Alakai high-speed ferry next month, in time for the winter humpback whale season. The Night Navigator 3 units, manufactured by Current Corp. of Vancouver, B.C., also will be used on a sister ferry scheduled to start interisland service next year.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaiian waters annually to mate and calve. Hawaii Superferry routes between Honolulu and Maui take the 350-foot Alakai through areas with some of the highest whale concentrations in the state, and the potential for collisions was a concern even before the service began in December.

The Alakai cruises at about 30 knots, or 35 mph, making it the fastest commercial vessel in local waters. During the last whale season, when the Alakai was in operation a total of 56 days from January through April, the ferry reported seven close encounters with humpback whales, including two near-misses of 15 and 25 feet.

No collisions were reported.

The ferry and most other nonmilitary vessels rely largely on low-tech human lookouts with binoculars to spot whales, but that’s no help at night.

Current Corp.’s Night Navigator 8540, an intensified night-vision system, was installed on the Alakai during construction, but marine mammal researchers contacted by The Advertiser doubt the value of night-vision equipment.

“Night-vision devices are simply not effective at detecting marine mammals at night,” said Jay Barlow, an expert in marine mammal surveys at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.


In studies conducted with the most advanced night-vision systems, “no animals were seen at night,” Barlow said in an e-mail to The Advertiser. “A very conspicuous target — three gallon milk jugs tied together — was barely visible at 150 meters. The only method that has proven effective is a military infrared system that can detect gray whale blows. This system, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, has too narrow a field of view to be used from a ship to search for cetaceans.”

The state’s own rapid-risk assessment of Superferry operations also doubts the effectiveness of night-vision gear, radar-based systems and bow-mounted cameras in spotting whales.

“At present, the only means of reliably detecting a whale at the surface is by visual detection, so reliance on two lookouts should be considered sufficient during daylight hours,” the August report said.

Current Corp. says its new Night Navigator 3 system is similar to military systems and can cut through the darkness to detect whales, logs, unlit boats, buoys and other obstacles.

The device has three sensors: a high-definition day camera, an image-intensified night-vision camera, and the high-resolution thermal imager that can be used day or night.

The thermal sensor creates a heat picture by detecting minute contrasts in temperatures emitted by objects.

“We developed a new system that can see through rain, snow, sea spray and vog and still detect whales day or night,” said the company’s president, Doug Houghton.

Current Corp. introduced the Night Navigator 3 in June and although Hawaii Superferry is not the first customer to use the sensor, it will be the first to use it for spotting whales, he said. Two sensors will be installed on the Alakai’s bridge, one port and the other starboard, to increase the field of vision.


After discussing the equipment with Hawaii Superferry in February, Houghton’s firm conducted field tests using a device that blasted warm spray into the air to simulate a whale spout. The Night Navigator 3 also was tested on the real thing during boat excursions off northern British Columbia and Alaska.

Houghton said the thermal sensor picked up spouts as far away as 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

With that capability, a vessel traveling at 30 knots — the Alakai’s cruising speed — would have two minutes from initial detection to change course, he said.

Addressing skeptics who might question the effectiveness of the Night Navigator 3, Houghton said: “Most of the people who have these opinions don’t have the time on the water at night that we do testing this equipment. No one else on Earth has done this research at night.”

Whale researcher Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center has not seen the Night Navigator 3 in action but reviewed information on the system and called it “promising.”

“If the sensitivity is as advertised, that’s very good. People have been using thermal sensors off California and the Chukchi Sea (above the Bering Strait) and it has worked well there,” he said.

Perryman’s work focuses on developing aerial photographic techniques to accurately count marine mammals in large aggregations and to determine the size and shape of individual animals. He also has been involved in monitoring reproduction by California gray whales.

The scientist said he has used military thermal imaging systems in his research and “they are very good at detecting very small differences in temperature … We can see whales at least two kilometers away. These new ones are pretty darn good.”

While thermal imaging of whale spouts has worked well in arctic regions where there is a significant contrast between frigid air temperatures and whale temperatures, Perryman said they might not be as reliable in a warm, humid environment where the differences are slight.

Perryman also said the sensor’s effectiveness would be enhanced by an automatic scanning system that detects blows, rather than a human “sitting there staring at a monitor.”

“It’s not perfect but I think it will help,” Perryman said.

Houghton said future thermal sensors will be automated, but for now, Superferry lookouts and bridge crew members will be watching four monitors that will be installed on the Alakai.

Perryman and Barlow also wondered how the Night Navigator 3 will perform on a vessel moving at 30 knots in choppy seas.

Barlow noted that the waters around Hawai’i are typically rough and that the temperature of a whale’s skin is almost the same as seawater because the animals are so well insulated.

He said “blows are only a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air” and “finding marine mammals at night in rough seas is a much harder task than any task illustrated” in the Night Navigator 3 demonstration video on Current Corp.’s Web site.

“If your question is whether this would be better than nothing at all at night, I think the answer would be yes if they had a dedicated operator with no other duties. However, I’d expect the sighting rate would be much lower than with binoculars during the daytime,” Barlow said.

Houghton said the units are stabilized to counteract the rolling of the ocean.

Considering the price tag, Superferry appears convinced the system will serve its purpose.

“The main thing we’re buying it for is the thermal imager,” said company official Richard Houck, a retired Coast Guard admiral. “This is the best we can do. Folks talk about ‘magic sonar’ but it’s not very useful. This is the cat’s meow.

“We think this is the state-of-the-art, best equipment out there and have confidence it will greatly assist us in spotting any whales in our routes so we can avoid them.”

The new high-tech sensing equipment may lessen worries about the Superferry’s whale-spotting capabilities, but the Alakai’s speed and its route through whale-dense areas remain a chief concern for many involved in marine mammal protection.

Research shows that whale-vessel collisions occurring at boat speeds above 10 knots cause more whale deaths and serious injuries than collisions at slower speeds.

“Our concerns are still the same, not just for the Superferry, it’s for all the folks that travel through the sanctuary, and that’s to pay attention and slow down. Be observant and know there’s a period of time when these whales are present,” said Naomi McIntosh, superintendent of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

NOAA Fisheries recommends all boat operators keep to 10 knots in areas where whales are known to congregate, but Superferry officials have said that’s unreasonable and unworkable for the high-speed ferry.


From January through April, the ferry follows a route that tracks north of Moloka’i, outside sanctuary boundaries. When seas are too rough for passenger safety and comfort, the Alakai takes a southerly route into the heart of the sanctuary, through Penguin Bank southwest of Moloka’i and between Maui and Moloka’i.

State-imposed operating conditions require the Alakai to limit its speed to no more than 25 knots within the sanctuary and in waters of 100 fathoms (600 feet) or less, which whales favor.

McIntosh said the route north of Moloka’i “does help minimize the risk, but they’re not always able to use that route. The number of times they came into the sanctuary is a little higher than we expected,” she said.

Superferry logs submitted to a state oversight task force show the Alakai used the southern route 21 percent of the time from January through April. The logs also show an average of 22 whale sightings per day in January, 31 per day in February, and 20 per day in April.

The Alakai was out of service for repairs and maintenance the entire month of March.

The records also show seven close encounters in which the vessel approached within 100 yards of whales, including one instance when the ship passed within 5 to 10 yards of an animal. On two other occasions, the ferry came within 25 and 50 feet of whales.

Before the Superferry launched last year, McIntosh and other officials with NOAA Fisheries in Hawai’i expressed deep concern about the potential for whale strikes and frustration that the agency wasn’t formally consulted by the company.

That consultation is taking place now as a requirement of the state-imposed operating conditions, which are in effect while an environmental impact statement is prepared.

Hawaii Superferry was required to apply for an incidental-take permit from NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources. The permit process involves developing a plan specifying actions that would minimize the risk of harm to marine species potentially impacted by ferry operations.

The company submitted its application in November and has been consulting with NOAA, according to Lisa Van Atta, acting assistant regional administrator for protected resources in NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office. She said the permit process could take several years.

Other state-imposed conditions in regard to marine mammal protection hew closely to the company’s own whale-avoidance policy.

“Until that (permit) process is completed and mitigation measures are identified, they are pretty much operating on their owner operating guidelines, which obviously are the ones we didn’t agree with,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh and others also are concerned about night voyages by the ferry. The Night Navigator 3 system may help alleviate some of those worries, as will Hawaii Superferry plans to cut back its evening sailings to once a week, on Fridays, effective November through March, based on lower demand.

“Whales do surface during that time period, and from acoustics studies we think it’s a very active time for them,” McIntosh said. “Vessels that travel at night particularly need to be really cautious.”


Pacific Whale Foundation president Greg Kaufman, a vocal critic of Hawaii Superferry, said the ferry should be prohibited from operating at night and should be forced to observe a 12-knot speed limit in sanctuary and 100-fathom waters.

Kaufman also is urging the state to revise the ferry’s southerly course to skirt Penguin Bank, where many of the whale sightings occurred, and reduce the vessel’s transit time in sensitive waters.

Jeffrey Walters, the state’s co-manager of the whale sanctuary, said there isn’t enough data from the Superferry’s abbreviated performance during its first whale season to judge whether new restrictions are needed or existing ones can be loosened.

“I am encouraged that there were no collisions,” he said. “Where I’ve been on this all along is that the Superferry is just one vessel and we have hundreds of vessels operating within the sanctuary every day during whale season. This issue of whale-vessel collisions was an issue even before the Superferry came on the scene. I’m not sure what singling out the Superferry really does.

“If it brings public attention to the issue then fine, but we need to look at the collision issue by not just singling out one vessel.”

In recent years, five to seven boat collisions with whales have been reported annually in Hawai’i, although officials suspect the number of actual strikes is much higher.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff