Saving the Seas of Sea Monsters

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Saving the Seas of Sea Monsters

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Feb 15, 2013

When I arrived at slip number 17 at Lahaina Wharf to check in for my whale watching boat tour, it was mid-morning and clouds drizzled down the West Maui mountains behind me. It had rained hard overnight. But looking out to sea, the sky was blue. I hoped the skies would remain their blue color, but the bruised clouds were making a convincing argument otherwise.

There are a line of wooden booths fronting the harbor here in Lahaina, the one-time whaling capitol of Hawaii. Some have colorful, hand-painted signs advertising fishing charters. Other booths just sport a painted number across the top, identifying the slip for the accompanying boat. The one I headed to featured a carved and painted whale breaching out of a splash of water. 

These booths serve as dock-side offices, wooden structures on which to hang a business shingle and sell whale watching or sport fishing tours and/or to check in guests for such adventures. A man named Eric with startling blue eyes worked the booth the day before this visit, but, now, the booth stood empty.

"He went after his dog," another whale watcher standing in the shade of the booth said. The air was close and humid and transformed standing still into a hot, sweaty sport. The man wore an Oakland fire department t-shirt and Cape Cod ball cap and carried a camera bag. A fellow photographer.

"Pono?" I asked. When I travel, I miss my dogs, two rescues from the Kauai Humane Society. That means whenever I run across another dog, I usually stop to give it a pet and learn its name. Pono was a rescue himself, part Labrador retriever, part Pit bull and part Rhodesian ridgeback. 

It's the last part that's important to this story. In Africa, Rhodesian ridgebacks are known to face off against lions in order to protect their responsibility, their people.

This was my third whale watch in as many days, and I was hesitant. My second outing was a gift, a spectacle not often witnessed. Two non-stop hours of breaching by the same whale are highly unusual, even according to our captain who has spent years on the water during numerous whale seasons. Should I even bother going out again? Had I used up my whale watching karma? Was I tempting fate? Would something bad happen now? Would the boat break? Would the weather turn bad? Would the next breaching whale land in my lap?

pono the dock dog at lahaina harborI'm not much of an alarmist, and I don't believe that bad follows good. I am a glass is three-quarters-full kind of girl. And I certainly felt sated. I'd been given my share of breaching whale photographs by Lola, as our grateful boat of whale watchers had named the marine mammal who had propelled herself out of the water some 40 times by our count. The breaches had been so regular and so close that I'd even started experimenting with my photographs. I zoomed out and composed for a scenic background. I even tapped a few breaching images with my iPhone--my iPhone for gosh darn sake. I suppose I could hope this time around for a double breach, but, seriously, that was getting greedy. I felt no need to go whale watching on day three. But I went anyway, partly to say thanks and partly because I’m a big believer in “time in the saddle.” That is, the more you do something, the more you’ll learn, the more you’ll witness, the more experiences you’ll wrack up.

Eric returned to the booth at Ultimate Whale Watch. He was out of breath, beads of sweat on his brow. Pono sauntered along far behind him.

"What happened to Pono?" I asked and craned my neck to see if the dog was limping or injured or something.

Eric shook his head and rolled his blue eyes. "Chasing sea monsters."

"Sea monsters?" I asked.

"Sharks. Turtles. Whales. He protects us by clearing the harbor of them."

Apparently, on Pono's first and last whale watching boat adventure, he herded the six or so passengers to the bow of the boat and, taking a running start, launched himself off the stern, chasing after a whale, even free diving underwater in his heroic effort to save his boat. It took 10 minutes to fish Pono out of the drink. The hilarity of it all is that the whale was hundreds of yards away, but Pono could smell it. He knew it was there. Somewhere.

No doubt Pono has a snout full of whale these days. The waters of the Maui triangle are teeming with humpbacks. As I left West Maui, driving to Kahului, I saw one breaching whale after another along the coastline. The humpback whale's recovery is so great--from an estimated 1200 in 1966 when whaling was banned internationally to an estimated 25,000 now for the North Pacific stock--that some are suggesting it might be time to remove humpbacks from the endangered species list.

And, so, our whale watching adventure pursued without Pono yesterday. And we saw whales, lots of them. But instead of a breaching female being pursued by two males in an all-out courtship dance, this time we witnessed the tenderness of mothers with their calves. One mama supported her baby on her head. Another mama demonstrated how to use her pectoral fin, slapping it on the water until her baby mimicked the behavior. Another calf threw its tail fin around in a pseudo caudal-peduncle throw.

What I love about going to Maui every year to go whale watching is hearing from the captains and naturalists. Even though I’ve been trained as a naturalist by the Kauai office of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary, I like talking to those people who spend time 12-hour days on the water during whale season in the Maui triangle. While there are humpbacks all throughout Hawaii’s waters, encircling the entire Hawaiian archipelago, they particularly like the sheltered waters off Maui.

Today’s naturalist, Lindsay, spends her summers in Alaska researching whales up there and working on whale watching boats off Maui during the winter. She reeled off one tidbit after another about humpback whales, and I was glad to learn the information that I share during my volunteer stints at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was still accurate—because science does change from time to time. Toward the end of our whale watching trip, Lindsay let slip a fact that I’d never heard before. One that would prove very important for Pono. 

According to Lindsay, humpback whales have a throat the diameter of a grapefruit. They also do not have teeth. That's why they are filter-feeders, using their baleen to sift small bits of food the size of krill and herring from the big gulps of water they take. That means we humans are not a food source for humpbacks. We are not their prey. And neither is Pono.

So, there is no real need for Pono to go to such heroic measures to protect us. But he doesn't know that. And that's why he's sidelined to the dock these days.


[Note: This blog post was written one week ago on Friday, February 8, 2013. Unfortunately, technical issues with the website prevented its publication until today.]

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