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Welcome to Maui. Welcome to Whale Soup.

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Feb 28, 2011

We boarded a Trilogy's Elua catamaran on the sandy shores of Kaanapali, Maui at 4:00 on a hot February afternoon, as a Kona system from the south evaporated Hawaii's cooling trade winds and vog from Hawaii (Big) Island's Kilauea volcano settled on the islands of Lanai and Molokai to our west.

February is known for pretty much one thing in Maui: Whales. Just three days before a whole day was dedicated to the celebration of whales in Kihei, complete with a Parade of Whales, Run for the Whales, Hawaiian music concert, “Made on Maui” market, food--lots and lots of food—and more.

So, there was no way I was going to Maui for business--real business, the kind with sit-down meetings INSIDE; the kind with handshakes, business cards and agendas; the kind of business I, your intrepid travel writer, shies away from, preferring to explore the authentic places and meet the special people of the islands of Hawaii--so there was no way I was going to Maui for business in February and not go whale watching. I toted my new Canon Rebel T2i with 70-300mm telephoto lens (thanks Rob) and dragged my four fellow business travelers from the corporate home office to Kaanapali Beach and hopped aboard a catamaran for a two-hour, sunset whale watching tour with 40+ other passengers—a full boat.

I say "tour," because Trilogy manned our boat with two crew members, Mark and John, both versed in whale know-how, who served as guides to the whales. When I asked how they came by all their knowledge, they said the company provided offered classes and seminars, some presented by the numerous whale researchers who have followed humpback whales to Maui for the past 30 years.

Per Mark, there are two primary behaviors witnessed in Hawaii each year, from November to April, when the humpback whales of the North Pacific stock visit.

One is male competition. I've written about male competition before. Basically, the big guys do everything they can to ensure they are number one on a female's dance card when she decides the time is right for a little love.

The second behavior you'll see is the interaction that takes place between a mother and calf, and that’s what I’ll focus on here.

We passengers gathered on the bow of Trilogy’s catamaran, kids and a few adults lounging on the trampolines. Mark took center stage while John passed out tasty cups of pineapple-ginger ale.

After gestating for 10 to 12 months, Mark said, pregnant females often choose a cove of calm and shallow water in which to birth their young, as I just read about last week on Kauai. Soon after the little one --all of 12 to 15 feet and some 3,000 pounds of "little"--trades the watery world of its mother's womb for the Pacific Ocean, its mother nudges it to the surface for the calf's first breath of air. Humpback whales are mammals, after all.

What’s surprising—for their size and the past 30 years of focused research—is that there is little documented evidence of actual whale births.

According to Mark, there is much physical and vocal contact between mother and newborn with the characteristic physical position of the calf just above and to one side of the mother’s head. The mother-calf bond lasts for a full year.

Mom spends four to six weeks with her calf in Hawaii. During that time, she doesn't eat. (And neither does any of the other adults--male or female—as krill, apparently, doesn't like our warm, tropical waters.) But the calf eats. Oh, does the calf eat. We're talking 300 gallons of milk a day. It's practically a non-stop suckle-fest.  And this suckle-fest leads to an average weight gain of seven to eight pounds PER HOUR. (That beats me on my worst--or best, however you look at it--day, known as Malasada Tuesday in Hawaii, which is next week, March 8, 2011, and also known as Fat Tuesday.)

The calf begins to nurse almost immediately after birth from two mammary slits located on the mother’s ventral side, below the umbilicus—belly button. But the act really can’t be called nursing or suckling. The calf nuzzles its mother’s mammary slit—nearly a foot in thickness—and the pressure releases a stream of milk. The calf uses it tongue, like a straw or gutter, perhaps, to curl around its mother’s nipple and direct milk into its mouth.  The whale mother’s milk isn’t quite like what we know. It’s much less watery and much fattier, more like concentrated protein-packed cottage cheese.

Our Captain guided our 50’ “Sloop Rigged Sailing Catamaran” for a group of whales. He made a point of stating that the endangered whales are federally protected and that a law states prohibits approaching within 100 yards without a special permit—that’s the kind researchers get.

“That’s a mom and calf,” Mark said and held up a model of a humpback whale. When a calf is first born, he said, its entire body's coloration is almost white, considerably lighter than that of its mother and the rest of its brethren. Within hours, though, its pigmentation darkens, including its fluke (tail flipper). As you may know, the underside of an adult's fluke is the whale's thumbprint. No two whales have the same pattern on their flukes. Newborns, however, do not develop their thumbprint right away, and so if you see a dark fluke making repetitive tail slaps, chances are it's a calf.

Mark’s dialogue was repeatedly interrupted with exclamations of “Look” and “There” and “Wow.”

When mom decides the calf is sufficiently strong and fat enough for its 3,000-mile trek to Alaska--and when she is a svelte one-third smaller and really, really hungry--she will lead her youngster back to Alaska. She will also guide it back to Hawaii a year later before she weans it for good. Once weaned, the calf and mother pretty much go their separate ways. On average, female humpback whales give birth every two to three years.

The practice of whale watching on boats generally overlays the hands of a clock on a boat, with straight up 12 o’clock being the bow. So, if you’re sitting, facing forward, and see a whale on your left, you’d call out 9:00. Or 10:00. Or 7:00. This gives people an idea of where to look. To give you an idea of how many whales we sighted on our two-hour whale watch, let’s just say, groups of whales lined up at every hour on the dial, in the far-distance, mid-distance and near-distance. Or, as Mark, said, “Welcome to Maui. Welcome to Whale Soup.”


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