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A Whale of March Madness

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Mar 19, 2012

I sat at Betty’s Beach Café on Maui overlooking the water in Lahaina. With one eye, I watched a pair of stand up paddlers wobble on stiff legs as they learned a new sport. A young girl in a pale blue bikini, white sunglasses and blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail got the hang of it. The guy didn’t. He opted to lie face down on his board and float.
 
With the other eye, I practiced “stink eye.”
 
When I walked into the restaurant at the south end of Lahaina on Front Street, four blaring televisions reminded me that way back in the middle of the country on the mainland, my alma mater was playing in the second round of the NCAA Final Four Tournament. Before I could focus on a single television screen and determine if the stick figures running around the court were wearing the black and gold uniforms of the University of Missouri, I heard a man at the bar say, “This is a major upset.” My eyes went to the ticker tape score across the bottom of the screen: 86 – 84. I watched as the referee, in a grand gesture, as if he was presenting a Thanksgiving turkey on a platter, handed the ball to a player on the sidelines. It all happened so fast. How much time is left? Are the Tigers winning or losing? Who has the ball? Is that a Tiger inbounding the ball? In their court? Who are they playing again?  The referee blew the whistle, handed the ball and a player threw the ball in. A pass. A shot. A miss. The buzzer. Game over. The Tigers had lost.
 
Hence, the stink eye.
 
It was better to look to the sea.
 
Earlier in the morning, I went whale watching with Maui Adventure Cruises. I did the same thing yesterday morning, only with the Hawaii Ocean Project. Two different days. Two different boat crews. Two different experiences. Both grand.
 
“Who’s the best?” I am often asked when it comes to choosing a whale watching boat operator. I am often evasive. I answer the question with a question—or five. What kind of boat do you prefer? Do you want cocktails? Want to snorkel Molokini? Are there children involved? Older adults?
 
What I like isn’t always what the next guy—or you—likes.
 
I prefer early mornings before the wind picks up and while the morning light projects a golden glow for the photographs I hope to snap. I prefer boats with a crew trained in whale behavior. Boats that support the environment and/or whale researchers. Boats that implement environmentally safe practices. Boats that do not use plastic—plastic utensils, plastic cups, single-use plastic containers.
 
I didn’t choose Hawaii Ocean Project for its boat, an old metal tank that looked to be a long-retired dinner cruise vessel. But the larger size did make it easy for me to wade through those other whale watchers on board and find unobstructed views. The company also operates something called the Research Direct Program, a voluntary research contribution fund in which 100% of all monies collected goes directly to whale researchers, including Dr. Robin Baird, on whose boat I’ve volunteered. And, then, there was Mario. How do I describe Mario? He was funny. Engaging. Memorable. When explaining the boat-as-clock concept as directions for calling out whale sightings, he asked us all to include distance. Researchers like Robin measure the distance from the boat in meters. Like: “Two-o-clock-200-meters.” Mario said this would work fine, “Two-o-clock-half-a-Costco-parking-lot.” He also told me that humpback whales have prehensile penises. More on that later. But what’s more: Mario knew his whale facts. Like:

-Their lungs are the size of VW Beatles, and they can exhale at speeds up to 300 mph reaching 30 feet into the air.
-Two flicks of the tail in 50 feet of water will launch their entire bodies out of the water.
-Their poop is as long as my arm and as thick as my head.
-By law, we cannot approach closer than 100 yards. That’s about the length of a Costco parking lot.
-The calf drinks 150 gallons a day. Its milk is made up of 50% fat and is the consistency of pudding. They don’t quite suckle. They nudge the “mommy buttons” and a cloud of milk releases.
-When not in Hawaii, the humpbacks go to Nebraska. Oh, wait, I mean Alaska.
-Humpback whales sleep by turning off two of the four lobes of their brain. They may log at the surface and expose their belly to the sun for warmth.
-By the end of the first year, the calf doubles in size.
-Humpbacks do no feed in Hawaii. But when they do, in Alaska, they are filter feeders. They take in water by expanding their ventral pleats which expand two to three times in size, from their jaws to their bellies. Their two-ton tongues press to the roof of their mouths to squeeze out water through their baleen.
-The deepest-known dive is 600 feet.
-They can hold their breath for up to 55 minutes.
-Their number one predator is humanity. Number two is the killer whale. A mother will protect her calf from an orca with swats of her mighty tail. The caudal peduncle muscle, located at the base of the tail, is the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom.
-Their song is as complex as classical music and changes from year to year. One year they may drop the snares and bring up the violins, say. Only the males sing.
-The males have a prehensile penis, which means it can wrap around things, and is called a dork.
 

I went out with Maui Adventure Cruises two years ago, so I knew what to expect: A smaller, more intimate boat. That meant less mobility but closer to the ocean. That meant I actually spoke with the other people. Jo, sitting next to me, was visiting “on a girl’s trip” from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was attending a yoga retreat with her girlfriend. Her 16-year-old daughter was on spring break. Jill captained the boat. She pulled out blue binoculars to scan the ocean. “We don’t want boring whales,” she said. “Single animals are boring.” Turns out, a mother and yearling are boring, too, because the yearling can hold its breath longer than a calf. Her first-mate, Rob, a slender man with a shock of yellow, wavy hair that I wanted to pull back in a pony tail manned the microphone, sharing his mana’o. Like::

-Humpbacks spend 90% of their life under water; only 10% at surface.
-The journey to and from Hawaii takes four to six weeks, traveling at five to 20 miles per hour.
-Humpbacks trickle in and out throughout the season.
-In the 1960s, the worldwide population of humpback whales dipped to 1,000 animals. Today, the recovery puts that number at 25,000.
-On average, females calve once every two to three years, although one female has been documented as calving four years in a row.
-While females participate in group foraging while in Alaska, they do not hang out together in Hawaii.
 
Neither day brought wildly crazy antics. No double breaches a Costco-parking lot away. No repetitive pec or fluke slaps. No peduncle throws. No heat runs.
 
As I sat eating my salad at Betty’s, a text came in from my college roommate Linda, a Tiger fan, whom I mentioned in my previous blog post on Kaanapali Beach. I probably shouldn’t quote her here. Let’s just say she wasn’t happy.
 
And, later, a New York Times News Alert popped up on the screen of my iPhone. The headline read, “No. 15 Seeded Norfolk State Upsets No. 2 Missouri in NCAA Tournament.” That’s breaking news?

After two days of whale watching and a few seconds of basketball, I made two decisions. Captain Jill says whale watching is a cumulative sport. So, next year, I am buying a week pass. I am also not watching any more college hoops. Whales trump basketball any day in my playbook.

Responses:

Susan | Mar 20, 2012 09:16 AM

So, who will you buy your week-long pass with for next year?

Kim | Mar 20, 2012 12:55 PM

Come. Come.

pam | Mar 30, 2012 07:42 AM

Loved it. You are so funny and teachery. I learn stuff while I laugh reading your blog. Thanks!

Rick Miller | Dec 18, 2012 06:24 AM

My wife and I, along with two of her girlfriends, are coming to Hawaii in early May 2013. Will there still be any whales around? We will be in Oahu for the first 6 days and then Maui for 8. Any hope?

Rick Miller | Dec 18, 2012 06:30 AM

Love your blog. Coming to Maui in early May 2013. Will we still be able to see any humpbacks?

Kim | Dec 18, 2012 06:28 PM

Hi Rick, thanks. There might be a few moms and late-birthing calves, but not many. Honestly, your chances aren't great. By May, the whale watching tours are over, and the captains return to snorkeling. But, that said, there's always a chance. One year, I witnessed my most memorable mom-and-calf repetitive breaching performance on May 21. And the best way to increase your chances is to spend time on the water. Also, more whales tend to congregate in the "Maui triangle," because, scientists speculate, mothers prefer the shallower and calmer waters found there over. But when you're a 45-foot, 45-ton animal, you can pretty much go wherever you want. Good luck.

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