My binocular encounter with humpback whales last week left me hungry for more. So when Stacy called with the news that Endless Summer Private Charters (now Big Island Shaka) had room to take us on a whale-watching excursion on Friday morning, we abandoned other plans. This was our chance to get out on the Pacific Ocean and see the whales up close. Federal regulations require vessels to maintain a 100 yard distance on an approach, but you can get closer if the whales come to you. We had high hopes and were not disappointed.
We sailed with Captain Bryan out of Kawaihae Harbor. This is a commercial harbor, one of two on the island where ocean-going ships deliver everything we can’t produce ourselves. But it’s also available for small boat launches, kayaking in the sheltered cove, picnicking and beach volleyball. Even the Hawaii Preparatory School’s Hawaiian Canoe Paddling Team trains there.
Add in the military ships that come in for exercises from the base on Oahu, and you get a very strange mix of users, at least it looked that way to me. Stacy who grew up here doesn’t see the oddity of this place. It’s all part of having everything one needs crammed on a small island. We don’t have the luxury of relegating whole sections of shoreline solely to commercial shipping docks.
Captain Bryan has been plying his expertise in Hawaiian waters since 1998, and before that off Catalina Island in California. Now he’s captaining his own vessel. We joined him on his 40 foot catamaran, the Makani Kai II, along with a sweet couple from Michigan on their first trip to Hawai‘i. Endless Summer specializes in small group outings with a maximum of six passengers plus a talented crew of knowledgeable deckhands. On that day we were enlightened, entertained and pampered by Renee, KJ and Sawyer.
Renee and KJ are from Maine; Sawyer is an intern who is literally just learning the ropes (the etymology of the phrase has nautical origins). Renee is the on-board marine animal expert, a biology graduate. She gave us a running commentary on what we were seeing. Besides being a deckhand, KJ is a music graduate and entertained us with her own composition. These gals made the trip for us. Their genuine enthusiasm for what we were seeing was contagious, even though they went out three times a day all winter long. As Captain Bryan said, “It’s a different experience every time we go out.”
The closest I’d ever been to a catamaran is my brother-in-law’s pontoon boat. Actually, I’ve never even been sailing. So I kept my butt firmly on the deck until the whales appeared, which was almost as soon as we left the harbor. After that I clambered around as required to see the whales and get good pictures. “Keep your head on a swivel,” Captain Bryan advised as he and the crew excitedly shouted out points on the clock where they were seeing spouting activity.
I loved seeing North Kohala from the ocean. It’s a bit like walking out onto ice covered lakes during Wisconsin winters to look back on the shoreline. There’s something magical about turning your perspective around. The water was fairly calm as winter goes. The catamaran rocked through the small swells, and we felt cool air rush past our faces while the sun warmed us simultaneously. Stacy and I found it incredibly freeing to leave land behind, along with our responsibilities: work, children, husband – we left all of it on shore for a couple of hours. And despite the excitement of the hunt, the rhythm of the vessel rocking with the waves was oddly calming too. I could see where sailing might be habit-forming.
Soon we started tracking a pod of humpbacks traveling toward Maui. It turned out to be a heat run: several males following a female in heat. Almost immediately one of the males waved his pectoral fin trying to catch the eye of the coy lady. It went on for about 30 minutes. Renee told us that the pectoral fin is 15 feet long or about a third of the whale’s 45 foot body. Each animal is different. This one’s fin was white on both sides, something the crew hadn’t seen before. Being this close it was easier to see that the pectoral fins are located closer to the back of the animal. The side of his tail fluke was often visible at the same time.
The whales were out in about 200 feet of water, and moving at a pretty good clip. The female surfaced and submerged, and occasionally dove deep. Renee said you could tell by the degree of arch in her back: the more arch, the deeper the dive. The males followed. Adults usually come up to breathe every 10 to 15 minutes, so we knew this would be a good time to take a break.
That gave the crew time to offer us snacks. We had fresh pineapple, Maui onion chips, banana bread, cheese, sausage and crackers at different points in the trip. They also treated us to POG, a favorite island juice drink made from passion fruit, oranges and guava juice, made even better by the addition of rum. Then we’d listen to Renee tell us more about the whales.
Females as young as four years old can get pregnant. Mating takes place in Hawaiian waters. Gestation takes 10 to 12 months, so females are back here in warm water for the birth. A calf stays with mom for about a year, swimming to Alaskan waters at the end of the winter season at just a few months old. They return to Hawai‘i with mom the following year, separating from her en route or soon after arrival. According to Renee, the mom does this by diving so deep that the calf can’t follow her. Females breed every two to three years. These whales live about 45 years though some experts say up to 100 years. I’ll go with 45. That will be easy to remember: humpbacks are about 45 feet long, 45 tons, and live 45 years.
Occasionally when the group slowed down Captain Bryan stopped the engine and deployed the hydrophone so we could hear the males singing. It was mesmerizing. Humpbacks are known for their songs. All the males from a given population (North Pacific, Atlantic, Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean) sing the same song. The song is 10 to 20 minutes long and they can repeat if for hours. Each song gradually changes over time, yet all males in the population keep up with the changes. They’ve got social media down pat! It was on one of these stops that we saw and heard two males breaching up close: absolutely jaw-dropping. We could even feel the waves that the whales created when they flopped onto their sides.
We motored out to deeper water in hopes of spotting different kinds of whales such as pilots and false killer whales. We didn’t have much luck but on the return trip the captain stopped so we could enjoy a quick swim, just long enough to cool down. Stacy, a former lifeguard, threw off her pareau and flung herself gracefully off the side of the boat. Even I, the big chicken, got in with a noodle, carefully removing clothing, putting up my hair, setting aside my glasses and descending the stairs. I’ve never been in water that deep and momentarily panicked when I saw the catamaran drifting away. But Captain Bryan fired it up and put it in reverse as soon as I asked if he was leaving me. Still, I patted myself on the back for getting out of my comfort zone by getting into 40 feet of vertical ocean.
What I learned on this trip is that my phone camera is not good enough to capture what I’m seeing, even at close distances. Thank goodness Jack from Michigan had a great camera along and sent Stacy and I some memorable pictures. This one shows three males with the one on the left showing off his pec. The picture also captures his tail fluke.
In fact, Jack took this one right in front of the empty subdivision where Stacy and I had watched whales from shore. I’ve gotta get a better camera. Thank you Jack!
For more essays on whales in Hawaii, see
And for my whale trip in Mexico see:
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