Thirty-three years ago, Greg Kaufman, founder of Hawaii’s Pacific Whale Foundation, climbed the ocean-side cliffs of Maui to look for whales. When he spotted a humpback, he would climb back down, jump into a boat and approach the whale for his research. Now, travellers have only to climb the steps of Greg’s whale-watching boats to see many whales.
In the 1960s, scientists estimated there were less than 1,000 humpback whales left in the northern Pacific. Fortunately for the whales and the people who love them, whaling was significantly reduced, and in 1992, U.S. Congress established the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
From December to April, whales like Maui as much as the tourists, but for different reasons. At 100 metres deep, the water is relatively shallow, and warm; perfect conditions for mating and giving birth. Orcas, the main predator of humpback babies, seldom visit.
Whale populations have grown about seven per cent a year and now, scientists estimate that around 10,000 whales visit the Hawaiian Islands each year.
The less-scientific description of the whale numbers visiting, was articulated by our guide, Jackson, who said, “It’s like whale soup out here today!”
On a single two-hour tour, we counted over 60 whales, some in the distance, others close enough that you could see the barnacles on their skin or feel the boat rock as they swam by.
Regulations prevent tour companies from approaching a whale within 100 yards (90 metres), but whales do not read, and will often come much closer, sometimes at great speed as they compete for a mate.
Over several days, we watched whales breach singly, in groups, and as moms taught babies how to jump.
We saw pectoral slaps, tail slaps and peduncle throws (when the whale snaps their tail like a whip).
We saw groups of males called competition pods push each other out of the water or race under the boat to gain a female’s favour. If a whale does something, they do it in Hawaii!
If you get seasick, you can whale watch on a large boat or from shore. Whales can be seen from Maui’s southern beaches from sunrise to sunset, and moms with new babies swim surprisingly close to shore.
If you hear a funny noise while snorkeling, chances are it is the whales singing. The song of every male is identical and if one whale sings, the other males join in, singing an identical song. Scientists cannot explain the cetacean karaoke, but some think it makes females more receptive to breeding.
The breeding and conservation are working. As whales have become more numerous, more people enjoy whale watching. Over 300,000 people took tours with Pacific Whale Foundation last year and experts estimate that more money has been generated by whale watching worldwide than was ever made from whaling!
Greg Kaufman probably did not foresee that economic success in his early gazes over the ocean, but winter visitors to Maui now find their vacation significantly enhanced by this conservation success story.
If you go:
• Look for whales from the beaches near Kihei or Kaanapali. The viewpoint at McGregor Point provides a panoramic view of the Hawaii Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
• Get a membership with the Pacific Whale Foundation. You save 20 per cent on tours, board first for the best seats, and help conservation projects (www.pacificwhale.org).
• To see what you might encounter, watch my video at http://youtu.be/ZLj-qHL3ldE
Carol Patterson helps businesses and people reinvent themselves through adventure. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.naturetravelgal.com.