watching whales

There’s something incredibly humbling and even spiritual about observing other earthlings relating to each other in nature. Especially when they’re 80,000-pound humpback whales and they’re diving right underneath you. On Marc’s first morning here, a handful of us were out  whale watching on the ocean at the dawn of a calm, sunny day. We didn’t have to go far–in fact, we were only a couple of miles offshore, with a view back toward the rainclouds enveloping the hill we live on. And we were right in the thick of it.

In this tiny triangle of water connecting the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui, between 3,000-5,000 humpback whales spend the winter birthing and mating. At this point in February, it’s the peak of the season. The whales take over a month to journey 3,000 miles here from the ocean southeast of Alaska. It’s a safe, sheltered spot for raising the young calves until they’re big enough to traverse the seas without being lost to predator sharks. To do this, the calves can gain 90 pounds of weight per day, which is an incredible feat for the moms. The ocean here is particularly salty and pretty devoid of life–which makes it an unappealing place for predators to hang out, but it means the adults don’t eat for months. Imagine spending four months birthing and feeding a baby without getting a decent meal in yourself! And to top it off, the gestation period is 11 months, which means the ladies are either pregnant, new moms, or just about to get pregnant, pretty much all the time. They begin giving birth at eight years old, and continue to have a calf every 2-3 years. For whales that live to between 45 and 100 years old, that’s a heck of a lot of childrearing.

Because having a calf is such a big deal, the women have pretty high standards in a mate. So the guys are constantly battling it out to be the primary escort–a Battle Royale, according to Captain Mike. But if the guy who makes it to the top isn’t fancied by the female, she shuts him down and goes for the next in line. During the birthing season, the males are off in the rough waters ramming each other and sometimes even splitting each other’s heads and tails. Unique to humpbacks, during this season the males sing a long, structured song, repeating the song for hours. All the males in a breeding ground sing the same song–in fact, all North Pacific humpbacks sing the same song, and all North Atlantic humpbacks sing a different song.

Meanwhile, the moms and calves are hanging out in the calmer shallows. Soon after striking out on the waves, we saw a mom with her calf, estimated to be only about two weeks old. Our hearts stopped as we watched what looked to be a guy and gal doing their graceful dance together. Although we could see spouts blowing for a mile in each direction, it was pretty quiet for about an hour and we were getting close to packing it in. I was listening to the wild stories of Captain Mike, a friend of the Hui, who has a tremendous amount of knowledge of and respect for the whales. Captain Mike decided to take one last turn to check out a few spouts in the distance. The next thing we knew, we were right in the middle of a Battle Royale.

Goosebumps rose as I watched the sharp curve of a tail and matching 15-foot wing fins cruising silently under our boat. Long bubble lines on the surface in every direction signaled their paths. Over and over again, they dived and surfaced, their tiny dorsal fins like the tips of gigantic black icebergs emerging out of the waves. Just the volume of water rushing down off their backs was enough to create new wave patterns. Often, they were so close, we could study the curves leading to the black abyss in each nostril of their blowholes. The whales simultaneously breathe in one hole and out the other. Though they can stay underwater for up to six hours, the males come up to blow every few minutes because they’re expending so much energy battling each other. There were probably five or six adult males all around us. A few came up so high out of the water that we could see their mouths open and bottom jaws puffed up in an effort to look tough to the other males.

I’ll be honest–I’ve been whale watching before, and we were definitely not allowed to get that close. But Captain Mike knows the whales and the waters on a very intimate basis, and the whales aren’t bothered by the sound of boats. I know that was the closest I’ll ever get to a whale, and it was without a doubt one of the most awestruck experiences I’ve ever had–a sense of deep interconnectedness with the earthlings of this planet that together we call home. It was also a moment to celebrate what’s going right in the world–after being on the endangered species list for decades due to commercial whaling that almost caused them to go extinct, North Pacific humpbacks have resurged to a very healthy population of over 21,000 and growing.

Since the whale watching trip, we’ve hiked to the north cliffs again, observing as the whales break the surface in their tumultuous dance 2,000 feet below us. We’ve sat motionless on the front deck of the lodge, catching glimpses of spouts blowing saltwater far out on the waves. But nothing can compare to gliding alongside one of these incredible creatures, dwarfed and humbled by its sheer immensity. It puts one’s life into perspective in a flash.

And the moment you’ve all been waiting for… BIG thanks to Phil Teyssier and Tina Green for sharing these incredible shots with me!

Marc and I on the boat – photo credits to Phil Teyssier…

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The following photos are all credit to Tina Green…

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Only on Molokai do you see animals shooting rainbows out of their nostrils…

And below, with credit to Phil Teyssier and his GPS, is a map of our path off the south coast of the island.

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