Gigantic Visitors Put on a Show
"Whales at 11 o' clock!" Several hundred yards ahead, off Mokuleia heading north toward Ka'ena Point, giveaway spouts sprayed the ocean. Seconds later, two massive ridged backs rolled together through the water followed by the slap of whale flukes hitting the ocean surface.
Ray Beatty, captain of the Ho'onanea,
In the midst of January's storm fronts, dangerous surf, kona winds and heavy rains, North Shore weather conditions had eased up enough for Beatty to sail the Ho'onanea out of Hale'iwa Harbor in search of humpback whales. These singing ambassadors of the ocean, Hawaii's welcome winter visitors, are among the biggest animals seen.
We weren't disappointed.
Thousands of humpback whales migrate annually from Alaska to Hawaii, showing up around November and leaving around April. Preferring the island chain's warm, shallow waters for mating, giving birth and nourishing their young, moms and calves are the last to leave on the long haul back to their North Pacific feeding grounds.
Humpbacks are most plentiful off Maui "where thousands of visitors and kama'aina head each winter for the annual whale fest” but humpbacks are visible from all islands. The best places to see them from Oahu are the North Shore, the Windward coast and between Wai'anae and Ka'ena Point on the Leeward side. Late January, February and March are considered peak viewing times.
In fact, they're hard to miss. Fully grown females ”which are bulkier than the males” can weigh 45 tons and reach 60 feet. Their 15-foot flippers, the longest of any whale, have earned the humpback species the name Megaptera or "great-winged." The term humpback comes from the hump on the forward part of the dorsal fin and the way the back flexes upward before they dive.
"Normally, in Hawaii, we see around 5,000 whales, which is about two-thirds of the entire population of the North Pacific," said Jeff Walters of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
"Some scientists describe the migratory parade as arriving at Kaua'i around October and then working their way down the island chain, arriving at the Big Island around January, February time. Other scientists believe that the reverse course is true. Also, different whales come by at different times."
Males and younger whales arrive first, Walters said, followed by females, and finally, pregnant females. Walters said this year the whales have come later and appear to be increasing in number.
"Pregnant females want to stay up in their feeding grounds as long as possible so they will be as fat and as fully nourished as possible for a healthy birth and nursing," Walters said.
As Navatek 1 pulled out of Honolulu Harbor, four passengers volunteer to hold up a life-size whale fluke made from sail cloth. The 15-foot replica stretches almost the width of the Navatek's broad middle deck.
Between November and April, the 140-foot Navatek 1 leaves daily on whale-sighting tours sailing between Hanauma Bay and Honolulu International Airport, and as far as 20 miles out to sea.
"On the South Shore, it's usual to see up to three whale pods a day through the season," said Susie Rodenkirchen, education coordinator at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab. "The types of pod we see depends on where we are in the season, males and yearlings earlier with pregnant females or mothers and calves seen later."
Whale-watching here is special, she said.
"Humpbacks are very watchable because they spend more time at the surface than other big whales and come closer to shore, where shallow waters offer protection," Rodenkirchen said.
"Whale pods are variable, anywhere between two and 20 whales. Some pods will stay a couple of days, some will move right on out of the area."
But this particular day, there were no sightings. The next day, Navatek passengers spotted a mother, her newborn calf and a male escort.
Up on the Navatek's observation deck, passengers glued their eyes to the ocean. We saw spinner dolphins and flying fish, but no whales. If none is sighted, Navatek issues passengers return tickets for a future date.
"When you weigh 40 tons, you don't have to put in an appearance if you don't want to," said Linda Coble, visiting from Tennessee with her husband, Len.
On the Navatek's port side, the crumbling cliffs of Koko Head, undercut by ocean currents, made their own statement about natural phenomena.
"We're happy just to take in this fabulous scenery," Coble said. "If we get to see whales, then great, but if not, we'll come back at a later date."
When a whale dives, the up-thrust of its tail propels water toward the surface. On the surface this effect can be seen as a round, calm area of flat water, known as a whale's footprint.
"Today is a difficult viewing day. Conditions need to be calm," said Navatek captain James Moody. "Normally our trade winds make footprints visible."
Tori Cullen, a marine biologist, and her husband, Armin, operate Wild Side Specialty Adventure whale-watching tours on their 42-foot catamaran, Island Spirit, out of Wai'anae Harbor. Whales have been showing up on the Leeward coast since Nov. 5, one day behind Maui's first documented sighting.
"It's always kind of a contest," said Tori Cullen, good-naturedly. "... This year we really thought we had it."
Cullen said the best months for sightings are February and March.
"However, there's been a day or two when we have not seen whales at all, and even stranger days when we've seen a bunch of whales in June!" she said. "On average, we will see between three and four different pods a day from now until April. When it's mostly only the moms and calves left, the numbers decline. The largest count we have seen was 13 different pods in two hours."
The Cullens focus on a small number of passengers (four to 15) for what they describe as a whale experience with knowledgeable friends rather than with hundreds of tourists.
The boat has an underwater microphone to pick up and broadcast sounds from the whales. And there are opportunities to get wet.
"At Wai'anae, we have a resident pod of spinner dolphins and a myriad of turtles and flying and tropical fish, so we provide snorkel equipment if the opportunity should arise," Cullen said.
Migration schedule is not well understood
Arriving from the deep blue, their 3,000-mile journey done, humpback whales cruise around the Islands like any good tourists. But how do they find their way here from Alaska or decide when it's time to start their journey ... and go back?
"These are tough questions to answer in whales because we can't do the same kinds of experiments as we do in other animals," said Dwayne Meadows, director of research at the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui. "How they navigate is not certain, but many other animals use a combination of magnetic and other cues such as sunlight features and time and this may be likely for whales, too."
Meadows says migration does seem to relate to weather and food levels in the North Pacific. "Whales certainly know that when it starts to get icy, that becomes a problem, even if their biological clock would normally keep them around."
Meadows said Hawaii's warm water is helpful to the whales for several reasons: "Calves have little blubber, so in warm water, they can survive easier and there may be less predators here where there is less food to establish large populations of the kind that would eat whales, for example, big sharks or large-toothed whales."
From Hawaii's breeding grounds, the whales disperse each spring to feeding areas across the North Pacific, swimming at 3 to 4 mph. In March and April 1995, Bruce Mate of Oregon State University tagged six whales with satellite-monitored radio transmitters as they passed the Na Pali coast on Kaua'i. He monitored interisland travel and recorded their departure for Alaska for periods ranging from half a day to 17 days.
Of the six whales, one adult traveled 150 miles to Oahu, another visited Penguin Bank and five islands in 10 days, three whales traveled independent parallel courses north-northeast toward the Gulf of Alaska, and a female with her calf, the fastest of the lot, traveled 500 miles in 4 1/2 days.
"The tracking suggested faster interisland movements than had been previously thought," Mate said. "Two whales traveled at an average speed of 90 miles a day; at that speed, migration to the upper Gulf of Alaska could be accomplished in 39 days. If the fastest whale's speed was maintained on a straight course, the entire migration could be accomplished in as little as 28 days."
By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer
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