I love this time of year when friends sprinkle their conversation with references to our humpback whales. “Yesterday we went to the beach and sat there for two hours watching the whales surface and spout.” Or “we were at this restaurant right on the ocean and the whales were active.” The air is alive with the possibility of seeing one anytime we get close to the water.
Jade and I had spotted a spout along the north Kohala Coast during the holidays. But that was early in the season when the humpbacks first started arriving from the coastal waters off Alaska to calve in the warm waters of our shallows – 600 feet and under. About 12,000 or two-thirds of the North Pacific population migrates every year. It was now time to be purposeful about my intention to see one. Stacy and I went this week.
We could tell it was going to be a great whale sighting day: all the way down the mountain from Waimea toward Kawaihae we saw splashing in the ocean. At Kawaihae we headed north, hoping to find a viewing location at the elevation of the highway where we’d have a broader vista. Unfortunately, most parks here are located at sea level. So we parked along the road and walked in to a subdivision development. Nothing was there except roads, a wall and some plantings. We settled in front of the wall under the skimpy shade of a palm tree and Stacy’s umbrella.
Almost immediately we saw splashing and spouting, so we abandoned our picnic lunch and grabbed binoculars. What a sight! Several whales in close proximity slapped the water with their pectoral fins. Scientists think it’s a form of signaling to each other, along with their singing. This is breeding season, and all this display may be linked to getting lucky with a charming 45 foot, 45 ton beauty.
Then one began to chin breach coming out of the water head first. It looked like a smaller whale, perhaps an adolescent male. He breached five times, using his tail to push 30 to 40% of his body out of the water, then falling sideways in a spectacular splash. I was holding my breath the whole time. We could clearly see him with binoculars, though my camera could not capture the events. These humpback photos are from Wikipedia.
About 10 minutes later in the same region we saw a whale performing the tail slap. He raised his tail out of the water and slapped it down on the surface, 13 times with a few seconds between slaps. Then after a short rest, he (or another whale) performed the tail slap 14 times. We sat there with binoculars glued to the sight, silent and listening to the sound rolling toward us. The whale was miles away, yet we could hear the slapping plain as day. After another short rest, he performed it yet again, this time with seven repeats. Imagine the strength it takes to lift the tail out of the water, then force the broad face of the fin down for the slap. We were thrilled.
But the sun was moving and frying us. So we packed up and moved up the road to a shadier location at Mahukona Beach Park to get a beach level view. This was the spot where my family had seen a mom in the cove with her calf many years earlier. Parked cars and people crowded the abandoned pier to the right, a favored snorkeling and dive spot. But the shoreline to the left was deserted. We parked in the shade and walked out to the beach.
Once again we were treated to the sight of a whale, this time just surfacing and swimming along. He might have been spy hopping, looking above the surface of the water. I’ve never seen such an abundance of whale behaviors before! Retreating to the shade, we watched for another half hour, so happy to be enjoying each other and the nature around us.
We ended the day by driving to Hawi for ice cream. I had to pick up Faye from school, but we had plenty of time. So we took the slow route back to Waimea, traveling along the spine of Kohala Mountain. Yes, back to the wet side of the island, but with some fabulous memories to savor, and the knowledge that we can go back any time. I’m hooked! In fact Stacy and I are now talking about taking a whale watching boat tour. It’s fun to be a tourist in my own back yard.
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