Roots & branches & all~

E Malama I Na Kohola (save the whales)

"Thar she blows!"

“Thar she blows!”

“Thar she blows!”  Fingers & cameras point to the 10 o’clock position in front of the surging boat.  Unsure as to the sex of the animal, some joke that maybe it should be said that, “Thar he blows” what everyone is sure of is that there is a whale up ahead.  We are on a boat (I don’t think it’s big enough to actually be called a ship), owned by the Pacific Whale Foundation, & we are out whaling while vacationing on the island of Maui.

Ocean Intrigue of the Pacific Whale Foundation fleet

Ocean Intrigue of the Pacific Whale Foundation fleet

Maui, part of the Hawaiian archipelago, is one of the best places in the world for the ease & abundance of its whale viewing.  The whales we are specifically looking to find are the humpbacks.  Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are among the most exciting whales to find because of their many & varied surface activities.  They love to leap out of the water startling boat captains as well tourists.  They often slap their tail fins (known as a fluke), or their pectoral fins on the surface of the water creating splash & noise.

Collage of one whale's self-expression~

Collage of one whale’s self-expression~

 As we gain on the whale, always being sure to keep the proper distance (federal law requires 100 yards inviolable space around each whale, unless you are properly permitted for research requirements), she rewards us with a breach, thrilling tourists & PWF employees alike.  There is nothing like a 45 ton animal leaping into the air & splashing back into the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean!  The water streaming from fins & flukes, the grey body shining black in the bright sunlight & the huge resounding splash as the magnificent animal allows gravity to bring it back to its natural element.

Adult humpback whale breaching.

Adult humpback whale breaching.

All of us are in awe, eyes shining, cameras forgotten, as we share this amazing moment.  Many ask, “Does this happen all the time?”  No, it does not.  Does it happen often?  Yes, it does.  Noone knows for certain why these animals use their energy to rise up above the liquid medium they are so at ease in; perhaps they are as curious about us as we are about them, or maybe they communicate using the sound created by that huge splash to let other whales know they are there, or even better, maybe it just feels good.  Researchers postulate many theories about humpbacks & yet, due to the difficulty of research in a boundless sea, few facts are known.

The thrill of being in close proximity to a humpback whale goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.  The power & majesty of an elephant or a lion combined with the beautiful weather & pristine blue water off the island of Maui make for a world class excursion, a gift to myself.  I cannot believe anyone would ever want to be anywhere else when the whales are here.  And why, pray tell, are the whales here?  The humpbacks migrate to Maui each winter to birth & breed; here all activities related to reproduction take place, while they keep all kitchen & dining duties confined to Alaska.  Someone on the boat actually put it, “It’s as if they have their kitchen & dining room in Alaska, a really long hallway & a bedroom in Maui.”  Alaska is where the humpbacks spend their summers, enjoying the plankton rich waters where they fill up on a ton a day of krill or small herring or other tiny ocean creatures.

The baleen showing in a "mustache" whale

The baleen showing in a “mustache” whale

Humpbacks are baleen whales & as such must eat a lot of really small things, since they have no teeth to bite or chew on bigger things.  In fact, whales (& dolphins) are divided into two main categories based on the way (& what) they eat, as well as how many nares, or nostrils, they have.

Yes, whales are mammals & like us they need to breathe oxygen.  Our humpbacks have two blowholes on the top of their head as members of the Mysticetes or mustache whales, while dolphins or killer whales are members of the Odontocetes, or toothed whales, & only have one blowhole.  So the blow we just saw actually had a bit of a V shape as it was exhaled, another way to recognize what type of whale we might be seeing.  The mustache referred to is the baleen in the mouth of the whale, the fringes of which look similar to Tom Selleck’s mustache in his Magnum, P.I. years.  Baleen is a bony construct that acts as a sieve allowing the humpback to filter the krill from the water they scoop up with it when they eat, which of course they don’t do at all in Maui.

The V-shaped spout of a baleen whale.

The V-shaped spout of a baleen whale.

Humpbacks are not the only type of cetacean found in Hawaiian waters but they are by far the most numerous & the most visible.  Humpbacks can hold their breath anywhere from 2 minutes to 20 minutes, or even up to an hour, if they are busy singing & when they take a breath, you know it!  The mist, made from ocean water that collected in their blowholes, actually atomizes as it is blown into the air, making the 15’ high column of water visible from great distances.  They quickly inhale; filling their VW beetle sized lungs with air & close their blowhole with a powerful sphincter muscle & prepare to dive.  If the dive is a deep one, we will see not only the hump of their famous back with its small dorsal fin, but also the fluke as it raises gracefully into the air to head straight down.

A humpback whale executing a fluke-up dive.

A humpback whale executing a fluke-up dive, in 4 parts.

Windmills atop McGregor Point, Maui.

Windmills atop McGregor Point, Maui.

Rather than wait for this deep diving whale to reappear, we simply head off in another direction, trying to get out of the famous Ma’alaea wind.  Ma’alaea Harbor, from where we boarded our boat, is the second windiest harbor in the world, (Wellington Harbor in New Zealand is considered to be The Windiest Harbor in the world).  Gratefully we take our hands off our hats as the white caps recede behind us rounding McGregor Point into the lee shore, out of that infamous wind.

One of the activities we get to enjoy in this quiet water is to listen to the humpbacks as they sing their famous song.  Researchers assert that only males sing, yet even after these many years of continuing study, noone is sure exactly why they sing.  According to George Colbert, “The whales do not sing because they have an answer, they sing because they have a song!” as good an answer as any.  It appears that the males sing on their own, not in chorus, & that the other whales who respond to the song are males.  Each season the song is slightly different from the season before & yet all the males in the North Pacific population seem to sing the same set of sounds we call a song.  These complex & compelling sounds are not made, as we do, with vocal chords, but rather by moving air around cavities in their heads.  It is a wondrous haunting sound like owls hooting combined with wolves howling & a human baby crying in accompaniment.  The singing is not heard much in the “kitchen” of Alaska so must have something to do with breeding, though what that might be is unclear.

One of the many concerns for humpback whales is that ocean noise has increased what with the noise of shipping along with the noises from Navy sonar & oil & gas exploration & therefore the acoustic environment of the ocean has degraded making it difficult for whales to communicate over distances.  This is especially true of the largest of the cetaceans, the blue whales, whose extremely low frequency sounds are unable to travel the amazing distances of their relatively silent past.  Our humpbacks seem to have no trouble hearing each other in this instance as we are hearing the overlapping echoes of possibly 5 whales (it’s impossible for me to tell with my untrained ears).  I am told that as the season continues the song will subtly be altered & the changes will be exhibited by all the singing males of the North Pacific population & noone knows how they communicate these changes, or why.  It is a wonderful mystery to enjoy which you can share online through The WhaleSong Project, a non-profit hydrophone operator located on Maui.

Maui mom & baby.

Maui mom & baby.

The whales we see about us seem to be primarily groups made up of a mama & a baby; the “little” guy (born at about 1000#s, 15’ long), loves to perfect his leaping skills & excites us all with what the PWFers call “a flying pickle” for it’s oddly blunted appearance & the hereditary tubercles, large bumps on all humpback heads.

A flying pickle

A flying pickle

If you want to know the sex of the whale you are viewing, the easiest way is to look for a calf: then you know you got a mama!  It appears that the mama whales like the relatively shallow waters off the coast of Maui to give birth & start their little ones off in a safe & healthy manner.  With a gestation period of 11 months, they manage to get pregnant & give birth in the relatively calm waters of a Maui winter (picture the challenges of Alaska in winter).  The strange thing is, we don’t know how long they’ve been coming to Hawai’i for this activity, (some of the N.Pacific population choose Mexico, as do their close relatives the grey whale).  In Polynesian lore most whales referred to are the palaoa, or toothed whales, like the sperm whale whose teeth were worn only by the ali’i, or royalty of their culture.  Humpbacks, kohola, are not mentioned in the early written records of the white men visiting the islands either.  It is supposed that they began coming here for their winter activities about 200 years ago, possibly following a whaling ship.  Whale hunting was allowed until 1966 (with some conservation efforts in the earlier part of the century which were largely ignored) when it became internationally outlawed by the ‘Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas’, which took the first steps in marine conservation worldwide. This international treaty was designed to specifically counter the over-exploitation of sea-life, including whales.  Then in 1972 the U.S. passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act followed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973 bringing the U.S. into a pro-whale stance from being one of the biggest whale hunting countries.  Internationally the IWC (International Whale Commission) creates quotas for commercial whaling but since it has no enforcement power & does not cover aboriginal or “scientific” whaling, it doesn’t have much actual control, which is voluntary.  In 1966 it was estimated the North Pacific population of whales was down to only 1,400 animals which has rebounded nicely to as many as 10-15,000 animals.  The whale watching we are enjoying is located within the NOAA’s National Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary, the only one of its kind in the United States.  These animals are protected & guarded from human intervention but that doesn’t mean they don’t have negative interactions with humans in the form of boat strikes or fishing net entanglements; nor does it mean they don’t have other threats in the form of predators.  Our flying pickles are the most vulnerable members of the population, prey to killer whales or tiger sharks, one of the reasons mama stays very close to her offspring & for choosing a breeding ground in Hawai’i, where Orcas are rarely seen & with her exceptional size & powerful peduncle muscle (her tail), she can fight off the solitary Tiger shark.

Pectoral slapping mom with her breaching calf.

Pectoral slapping mom with her breaching calf.

Our little leaping whale will have from 3-6 months in Maui to drink mama’s exceptionally high fat milk (up to 40-50% milk fat!), strengthen their peduncle muscles (the ones that make their tails move up & down so powerfully allowing them speed & agility in the water) & increase their size & stamina to make the 3,000+ mile swim to Alaska with their mama to experience the thrill of an Alaskan summer with lots of eating & growing to be done.  Our calf will then return with mama to Maui for the following winter, a yearling, where she will say her farewells & they go their own separate ways.  Our humpback whales have what is called a fluid social system; that means there is no family orientation (except for that first year of a calf’s life).  Other whale pods in our whale watch include a male with a female & her calf called the escort whale.  He is not “papa” but more likely wants to father next year’s calf.  Our mama may or may not want to make another calf; births average every 2-3 years, but it has been documented for a mama whale to have a calf every year for 4 or more years before taking a break.  The other grouping of whales, also having to do with reproduction, is a competition pod vying for the attention of the single female in their midst, who may or may not have a calf with her.  These males provide the most dramatic whale entertainment as they lunge head first on top of one another with their huge heads out of the water or use those powerful peduncle muscles to stay in the lead & discourage their contenders.  The experts assure me that if we see the blows of 4 or 5 whales at the surface of the water there are probably twice that many we can’t see underneath.  This is the challenge of studying humpbacks: so much of what they do is underwater!

The famous dorsal fin of the humpback whale.

The famous dorsal fin of the humpback whale.

As we head back into the wind to return to our port, we are all hoping to be mugged.  One of the few places in the world where mugging is a desirable experience, a mugging on Maui is not to be missed.  When a whale is curious enough to come over to a boat (remember that federal law keeps the boat from approaching the whale), that boat must be in neutral to avoid injuring the animal.  That means there is no leaving the whale & if that whale wants to hang out all morning, so too the boat.  This means extra close up viewing & the dubious thrill of a shower of “whale snot” (really it’s just ½ cup of ocean water atomized into the air).  You might see barnacles on tips of flukes or in the pleats under their jaw or even be able to tell what sex the animal is (females have a roundish protrusion on their bellies called a hemispherical lobe).  Sadly, this does not occur on our whale watch today but there is always tomorrow.  Most folks who love whales as I do are not content with just one whale watch while on Maui & some get season passes to go out as often as possible because each whale watch provides new excitement & you never know what will happen when viewing an endangered animal in the wild, especially the wilds of the largest ocean on earth.

Aloha, my beloved Kohola & mahalo nui loa for allowing me to experience one of the greatest wonders of creation.  As one of my favorite poems, by Thomas Pynchon, reminds us:

Dream tonight of peacock tails,

Diamond fields and spouter whales.

Ills are many, blessings few,

But dreams tonight will shelter you.

A fluke

That’s a fluke, folks!



  1. Wow – watching that breaching whale must have been quite a treat. Beautiful.

    • indeed it was; frankly, i think there’s nothing as inspiring as a whale leaping!

  2. emily

    Nice whale tales, Mama! You tell a great story. I wanna see a flying pickle! xo

    • Yes, those flying pickles are a joy & a delight & there are more of them to watch every year! (thank you for the praise, it means a lot coming from you!)

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