Wandering the West
March 1, 2011
Bobbing around on a big catamaran last week midway between the Hawaiian Islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai, I tried to count the number of different plumes of water rising from the ocean. Three, close together, at one o’clock. One in a direct line with the tip of Lanai. Two more looking back at the hotels of Kaanapali Beach on Maui.
"Its whale soup out here this month," the whale naturalist on my tour boat laughed. All around, humpback whales were doing what I was doing, seeking warm waters as a refuge from winter’s chill. For humpbacks, it is a matter of instinct, nature, and survival of the species.
Humpbacks come to Hawaii to mate, and more or less a year later they return to give birth and nurture their young in more serene waters than the Alaskan waters of the North Pacific, where they spend their summers feeding. It is a 4,500-mile trip, and the peak time to see them is right now. Most sightings occur in February and March, although the whales start arriving in November and head back to Alaska toward the end of May.
I’ve been on boats watching them both in Hawaii and Alaska. Your chances are a lot better in Hawaiian waters, where they’re more concentrated around Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. I also saw them close to shore this trip on Oahu’s North Shore. All those areas are designated as the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Humpbacks faced extinction as recently as the 1960s, but with whaling bans and international protection efforts, they’ve bounced back to comfortably high numbers between 30,000 and 40,000. Their biggest threat now is entanglement in fishing nets that can stretch for miles.
Upwards of 10 percent of them concentrate their winter visits among the Hawaiian Islands. At a weight of a ton per foot, and a length of 40 feet or so, they’re hard to miss when they come up for air.
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In Hawaii you can spot humpbacks from shore by watching for their blows — or spouts. As air-breathing mammals, they come up from dives blasting water from the blowholes through which they breathe. At a minimum, sighting a spout will soon lead to at least a rolling of the whale’s back out of the water. Concentrate enough on spout sightings and you’ll be treated to more of a show.
Since humpbacks are either mating or have recently given birth, two blowholes could mean a mother and baby or an amorous couple. Watch for three closely spaced spouts and all bets are off. That most likely means two males are in hot pursuit of a female and, when two 40-ton whales compete for attention, that’s 80 tons of entertainment. Whales can breach, throwing themselves two thirds out of the water, in an effort to land on competing suitors to drive them away, or just to make some noise and show off. To gain attention and communicate, and perhaps to intimidate, they also slap their flukes, or tails, repeatedly against the water. While breaches are the most spectacular of whale behaviors, they last but a second. Conversely, we watched tail slapping go on for several minutes. On a still day, the sound of the slap can travel for miles.
Other whale behaviors include headfirst lunges out of the water to slap the head on the surface, or the pectoral flap, involving a sideways roll allowing the pectoral fins to slap the water. Whales also squeal to each other underwater and some boats have hydrophones they can drop into the water to pick up sounds.
Hawaiian whale-watching tours take off from most places tourists congregate. One good jumping off point is Lahaina, the historic whaling port on Maui, where several historic buildings from the whaling era survive. Check out the Customs House and its multi-trunked banyan tree, which covers most of a city block with its canopy.
Whale-watching tours generally run a couple of hours, and many operators offer a second trip free if passengers get skunked without a sighting the first time. The day before I went out, the trip lasted an extra hour because a curious humpback swam to the boat and just hung out next to it, preventing the captain from firing up his engines. Good thing it didn’t feel the need to breach just then.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Insider tip: The whale will always breach on the opposite side of the boat from where you’re standing!