At 7:30 this morning, the sun glinted off the ocean like it was a field of diamonds. Three minutes outside the Lahaina Harbor, Captain Karl of Maui Adventure Cruises nosed the boat northwest. He had already spotted our first humpback whales of the morning. Thar she blows.
From a couple miles away, we could see the action. A competitive group of male whales vied for one female’s attention. The guys tail slapped. They pec slapped. And they threw their peduncles* every which way. This was serious business.
Another captain with us, Gary, said that scientists feel these explosive behaviors–some ending in bloody wounds–represented a form of communication. Like these 45-foot, 45-ton behemoths were saying, “Don’t cut in on me, buster, I was here first.” “She’s mine, matie.” And “Back off, dude, I really want her.”
When humpback whales migrate 4,000 miles from their feeding grounds of Alaska to Hawaii each year, the males do so to mate. The need to breed is so strong, they face up to four months without food to do so. As the season winds down, Captain Gary quipped, “It’s like the big stomach says, ‘I am hungry,’ and the Little Man says, ‘But I have need to breed.’” Eventually, one of two things happens: Hunger wins out, or all the females leave. Either way, the males turn north.
In February, according to Gary, in order for Maui Adventure Cruises to traverse across the Au’au Channel to Lana’i for their dolphin snorkel cruises, they have to dodge groups of whales to get there. This time of year, though, the numbers of whales decrease by about one-third. Since there are fewer females, the fighting for who gets rights to continue their gene pool gets ferocious. “Much more goes on below water than above,” said Karl, who volunteers his captain’s duties to a research boat one day a week.
Humpback whales are not sexually active until they are 12 or 13. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested, though. Males start fighting with other males when they are half that age. Until then, “It’s like a sex ed class,” said Gary. And teen dating.
Captain Karl turned out boat around when three other whalewatching vessels approached, and we started jockeying for position. If we weren’t careful, we’d be head butting and tail slapping each other for a view of the action. Plus, we’d found ourselves sideways to the waves jumbled up by the tradewinds whipping around the island. The boat rocked. “Let’s find some whales in calm water,” said Karl.
And we did. We spent most of the next–and last–hour of our whalewatching tour observing five adult whales–we never did spot a calf in this group. They behaved much more civil. Maybe they were older. At times, we spotted “footprints” on the water-calm areas created by tail flicks, pec slaps and other movement below the water. We also followed the direction of the whales below the surface of the water by scanning the horizon for moving blocks of turquoise color. Once, deep below us, a whale swam under our boat. All I could make of it, though, was the discoloration of the water column.
I arrived on Maui wondering whether I could enjoy the amazing wonder of whales without having to step foot on a boat. Without having to disturb their world. Without risking injury to them by a boat strike. I depart Maui feeling two things: 1) No land-based whalewatching I have ever experienced compares to that from a boat; and 2) Maui truly is no ka oi when it comes to whales. Still, I wonder whether there shouldn’t be some limitation on how many boats can ply the whale’s world during peak season and in population-dense areas.
*According to Captain Karl, the caudal peduncle-the area behind the whale’s dorsal fin-is the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom.