The Comeback of the Humpback

September 10, 2018

The early morning conditions on Au’au Channel are ideal—calm winds and glassy water. Puffy clouds suspended overhead glow with shades of purple and pink, which the smooth water reflects as crisply as would a freshly Windexed mirror. Between these colors, I sit comfortably on the side of an inflated pontoon, part of a grey Zodiac— something needs to be monochrome—with 15 other people. Our small craft left Lahaina, on Maui’s west coast, just minutes earlier. Looking back toward land, the light of the rising sun explodes from behind the West Maui Mountains.

A mile or two offshore, with Lahaina still in sight, the captain cuts the engine, and the only sound is water lapping at the sides of the boat. We drift in silence, our eyes fixed on the water’s surface, hunting for any sign of something below. Even a small riffle can signal a humpback whale, which, although the sunrise as seen from the ocean is gorgeous, is what we’re really out here to see. For five minutes, all 16 of us on the Zodiac swivel our necks and bodies to take in as much of the 360 degrees of ocean around us. We never see a small riffle. When a humpback—“koholā” in native Hawaiian—comes, it’s a crack of thunder.

One hundred yards from the boat, a blowhole (or blowholes, humpbacks have two) breaks the water’s surface. Its release of air is like a reverse geyser. Despite the distance, I feel the blast of air; it’s like when you’re standing on a busy sidewalk and a city bus roars past. All of us in the boat sway. And the one-of-a-kind experience isn’t over. Next the whale’s small dorsal fin arches out of the water and its tail emerges as it dives back down beneath the surface. This humpback is easily twice the size of our boat, which is not unusual for the species—adults can grow to about 50 feet in length. I don’t know if I’m more afraid or humbled. There’s no way such a gigantic beast won’t trigger thoughts about your place in the world.

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Beside it, another, smaller whale—only by comparison; it’s still about 20 feet from tip to tail—surfaces. Our captain, who partners with a local research organization called Whale Trust, tells us this pair is a mother and calf. (When born, baby humpbacks are 10 to 16 feet long, so this one is likely several months old.) I get the captain’s attention to ask a question, but am interrupted. A few hundred yards beyond the mom and kid, a third whale treats us to a full breach—it launches itself completely out of the water and slams back down with a splash “large” doesn’t begin to do justice. Mother Nature’s grandest cannonball? I’ve seen boats leave smaller wakes than the waves that expand outward in a perfect circle from this whale’s crash site. The captain gives me a wink and asks if I mind holding my question. He switches on the engine, pushes the throttle forward, and we speed toward where the breaching whale has already disappeared beneath the water.

Seeing a humpback whale here in Maui is extra special for me, because it’s potentially— albeit not likely—the same one I saw just a few months ago up north. On a bright blue August day, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, I stood by the stern of a fishing boat. Humpbacks breached everywhere. Most of the whales in the Hawaiian Islands come from either Alaska or British Columbia. After the roughly 2,500- mile swim, they typically arrive in October and can stay through May (peak migration is mid-January to mid-March). Humpbacks have an instinct for navigation that humans are still trying to understand. That they make this migration year after year, without external help, fascinates researchers. Though whales can be seen from any of the major Hawaiian Islands, Maui reports the most sightings each year, the 45-ton mammals preferring to raise their calves in the shallow, protected waters off the island’s west coast.

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There’s no shortage of evidence for Maui’s popularity among whales as we motor farther out into the channel. It seems like every five minutes a whale breaches, or some part of a whale arcs out of the water. Sometimes this is way off in the distance; other times it’s close enough for us to hear the splash when it crashes back into the water (federal law prohibits getting closer than 100 yards). A few times I try to snap a photo, but the spontaneous nature of breaching means each time I fail. It doesn’t take many missed photos for me to get the hint: put the camera away and be in the present.

Doing this is more interesting than any photo I could have taken. I begin to notice details, like how the humpbacks allow their tails to linger above the surface of the water, as if they’re airing it out. Or waving. The rest of their school-bus-sized body is hidden, but there’s a tail, itself no small feature—an adult humpback’s is about 15 feet wide—above the water. I think of these tails—if you want to sound science-y, call them a “fluke”—merely as a gorgeous detail to be soaked in, especially when backdropped against the green-faced West Maui Mountains. But the captain, who does work with whale researchers from around the world after all, tells us exposing their fluke like this has a purpose, even if researchers are still debating the specifics of it. Some say it’s a form of thermoregulation. The captain continues: even though the point of fluking remains up for debate, everyone is in agreement that it is an unusual behavior to see here.

While mine is a group of tourists, during much of the humpback season, small boats like our Zodiac instead shuttle researchers here to study whale behavior. I and my fellow passengers “watch,” but these scientists “watch over.” Maui has several permanent foundations conducting research on humpback whales. They include the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), Whale Trust, Keiki Kohola, Oceanwide Science Institute, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (NMS). While there are overlaps, each organization has its own research focus: The PWF looks into issues of boat-whale collisions and marine debris; Whale Trust studies whale songs and mating behaviors; and NMS tracks rates of disentanglement.

Considering that Lahaina was the center of Hawaii’s commercial whaling industry for much of the 19th century—an industry that’s almost entirely responsible for the near extinction of humpback whales—it makes moral sense that such research takes place here. Recent research (from here and elsewhere) reveals good news about the species: Last year, for the first time since 1970, the Hawaiian population of humpback whales was removed from the list of endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The credit for this monumental achievement goes to local organizations as well as to organizations around the world who have worked hard to beat back threats against these whales such as the commercial whaling industry, entanglement, and boat collisions. Credit also needs to go to projects that have put whales into the general public’s imagination.

Modern(ish) movies like Free Willy (1993) and Blackfish (2013) raised awareness of whale-related issues. Going further back—to the 1970s, shortly after humpbacks were first listed as endangered—National Geographic inserted a vinyl record of whale songs into one of its issues. Millions of homes worldwide listened to the sounds of whales for the first time and were enthralled.

In the early 1980s, according to Whale Trust there were between 1,000 and 2,000 humpbacks living seasonally throughout Hawaii. The latest population estimate—which is a decade old and estimated to now be higher—is that around 20,000 humpbacks live in the North Pacific; about half of these migrate to/through Hawaii.

Back in the Zodiac, the show continues. It gets better than fluking. Several hundred feet from our boat, a whale slaps its tail several times against the water: whap, whap, whap. It’s like the pop of a firecracker, except not. The sound has a density and power I’m at a loss to draw any kind of comparison to. Each whap is deadened as quickly as it’s made. The captain tells us this is one of the ways whales “talk.” This form of communication can be heard for miles.

As exciting as the whapping is, whale “singing” is more so. Having missed the National Geographic vinyl by several decades, I ask our captain what a whale song sounds like. He’s ready for this query, and pulls out a long, coiled cord with a small bulb at the end: an underwater microphone (“hydrophone” to researchers). He lowers the bulb into the water, plugs the other end into a speaker that looks like a guitar amp, and clicks on the volume knob. A chorus of sound pours from the speaker, a deep-lunged, bass- driven burp that soon becomes a high-pitched, ear-piercing whine.

Before long, we hear calls across a range of tones—bass, alto, even soprano. But without the hydrophone we’d hear little. If the captain were to turn the speaker off, it’d be as quiet as can be in our boat floating on top of the water. Whale song travels through water but not air.

Whale Trust Co-Founder Meagan Jones, who researches how whales use these songs to communicate, says the singing seems to peak at winter breeding grounds. Like much having to do with whales though, it remains an open- ended question. Song isn’t even the biggest of unanswered whale questions. A bigger one? While it is widely presumed that humpbacks come to Maui to give birth, Jones says this hasn’t been confirmed, scientifically: No one has ever documented a whale giving birth or mating here in Hawaii. I find this as awesome as the showboating the whales do on the surface—fluking, breaching, whapping. For all their perceived flamboyance, their secrets remain submerged.

The sun fully risen—its full orb hangs over the mountains—we begin to make our way back to the marina at Lahaina. My session at sea is complete, but it’s left me with more questions than it answered. I want to learn more. And if this further education comes with a helicopter ride, well, I’ll make that sacrifice.

Whale watching from a helicopter is something typically reserved for researchers. Scientists take to the sky to best estimate the difference in the size of humpbacks; this is easier to do from the air than at whale level. The captain told me he’s known of non-academic whale watchers really keen on the animals chartering a chopper for the unique perspective. How many species of animals are big enough that a helicopter actually improves the view of the individual? 

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As the blades begin their warm-up, I pull on my seatbelt, and check it several times. No matter how I sit or position myself, the result is the same: The line between being inside and outside this helicopter is blurred. This is likely because its doors have been removed. The edge of my seat is literally the edge of the helicopter. My toes rest where metal meets air. When we bank and turn right—the side I’m sitting on—I’m suspended and feel completely vulnerable. Am I about to spill out and plunge overboard? The seatbelts around my waist and shoulders hold the full measure of my body weight. I look down not at the floor, but at the bright, aqua-blue of the Au’au Channel several hundred feet below. I’d scream if I wasn’t holding my breath and my stomach wasn’t twisted around my diaphragm.

And then, a pod of whales. As we hover at 1,000 feet—the distance required by law—a pod swims together across the channel. Without getting too philosophical, it’s poetry in motion, each whale in rhythm with the others; one surfaces slightly to breathe before arching back beneath the surface. And then another rises for its fresh air. Though I can’t feel their power as I did in the Zodiac, this bird’s-eye view reveals a secret: While you might see only one whale at the surface, often many of them travel together. And although they are just 10 or 20 feet below the surface, underwater whales are virtually invisible from sea level. I wonder how many I missed from the boat. I also wonder how something so large can hide so easily. (If you don’t yet have a sense of this species’ enormity, another fact: The heart of an average adult humpback weighs more than 400 pounds.)

My third (and final) whale perspective comes on a quiet, west-facing beach near Kīhei. I’ve been adjacent to whales and I’ve been above them, now it’s time to be in the water with them. Almost. With my toes in the sand, I first look out and see the whales spouting off shore in the channel. The white spray from their blowholes makes it look like the ocean is full of fountains.

I grab my goggles, dive into the surf, and swim out 30 seconds beyond the shore break. Treading water, I search for the tell-tale fountains. They’re at least one mile away, but just as easy to see from here as from the shore. Taking a deep breath, I slip below the surface, turning my palms upward, pushing the water up to propel my body down. And then I keep still. As easy as the spouting is to see, their singing is easier to hear. Howls, moans, and grunts surround me. I wonder if it’s my imagination that I can feel the sound waves. I’ll have to go back and ask the captain. Or maybe I’ll just run with my imagination. After all, there’s still so much mystery surrounding whale behavior, who’s to say they aren’t talking to me?