The August 2023 blaze torched the town’s harbor, disrupting a spotting network crucial to saving entangled whales.

The inferno raged through Lahaina, Hawaii, killing 100 people and displacing thousands. Months since the flames’ devastating march on Aug. 8, the town has scarcely begun to recover. Yet while the flames have long been extinguished, the fire may not be finished claiming victims.

For Ed Lyman, the fire was only the beginning of his troubles. Lyman leads the region’s whale disentanglement team for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. And in the fire’s wake, he suddenly found he’d lost most of his volunteer eyes on the water.

Every winter, as many as 12,000 humpback whales congregate around Hawaii. The animals head south from Alaska to the region’s warm waters to give birth. But in the busy North Pacific, many become ensnared in lost fishing ropes, nets and other debris.

A humpback whale flashes its tail Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Maalaea Harbor in Wailuku. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A humpback whale flashes its tail Nov. 25 in Maalaea Harbor. The Aug. 8 fires have affected whale disentanglement efforts. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In the early 2000s, Lyman joined fellow scientist David Mattila on Maui to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration develop its first emergency response team for disentangling large whales. When Mattila left a few years later, it didn’t take Lyman long to realize he couldn’t solve the entanglement problem on his own.

Lyman leaned into support from the local boating community, asking them to stay alert for entangled humpbacks. If boaters spot one, they know to contact him right away. If they can, the boaters stand by and keep an eye on the whale until Lyman can scramble his small team of highly trained local volunteers to attempt a rescue.

Raising awareness in the boating community took a couple of years, but Lyman says it’s the best support he’s ever received. “It’s the aloha spirit,” he says.

Maui’s disentanglement response team is one of the best in the world, Lyman adds. They help teams in Alaska and down the west coast of North America, and they’ve trained disentanglement experts in 10 other countries. But they don’t work alone. Yet with an estimated 30% to 50% fewer boats on the water around Lahaina this winter, Lyman and his team will be mostly without help.

“Also,” says Lyman, “the fuel dock burned down.” With nowhere to refuel, Lyman isn’t sure how effective his team will be. “We could see a substantial decrease in our response network,” he says. “And that might mean we don’t find those entangled whales this winter.”

The disentanglement team also lost most of their specialized gear: the poles with curved knives on the end that they use to cut lines off whales, along with their drones, cameras, antennas, receivers, helmets, and safety vests. Most of these tools, stored in a container at a Lahaina boatyard, melted into a puddle.

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina burned to the ground on Aug. 8 amid hurricane force winds. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Lyman is trying to recruit boaters and companies from farther away to join his spotting network, including those based out of Maui’s Maalaea Harbor, 15 miles away.

One of those ready to step up is Riley Coon, a co-owner of Trilogy Excursions. Coon says the fire scattered his fleet of whale-watching and snorkel tour vessels.

One boat burned in the harbor, he says, while another was saved by an employee, who piloted it to safety while being pelted by hot embers in smoke so thick and black he could barely see. The daring pilot saved that vessel, Coon says, and a few of his other boats were moored far enough away from the firestorm to avoid the worst of the disaster.

Coon is now operating some of his vessels from Maalaea and says he’s ready to reach out to Lyman if they find an entangled whale. Stopping what he’s doing to stick with an entangled whale can delay a tour, but “it’s our duty to help out, not just take,” Coon says. “We are the eyes and the ears out there on the water.”

For many, the fire was a financial blow from which they couldn’t recover. Fortunately for Lyman, a private donor recently stepped in to replace the melted gear. “By next winter,” Lyman says, “we will be closer to rebuilding our community and our network, but this season will be lean.”

What happened to Lahaina is still a very fresh catastrophe, nowhere near being settled or solved. For the humpback whales already arriving in the region’s cobalt waters, the human misery onshore is unknown and unknowable.

Yet the consequences will be felt by the whales that arrive wrapped in unbreakable, abrasive lines or dragging a heavy veil of durable netting. With the loss of Lahaina Harbor and its community of concerned watchers, whales will likely suffer with no one to make the call that could set them free.

This article by Hakai Magazine is published here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.

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