Maui Surprises: Whales at Dawn

Even before dawn, the ocean is beautiful.  Paddling in a six-person outrigger canoe, as I do, I ‘m often in a boat to see the sun rise over Haleakala.  Now that it is whale season, we sometimes get to see humpbacks too.

Before dawn- clouds over Haleakala

Before dawn- clouds over Haleakala

Before dawn from the canoes

View from the canoes

Off our bow- a whale

Off our bow- a whale

Although endangered, humpbacks can be found in all  oceans, and they migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator.  Our humpback whales come to Hawaii during the winter months to give birth and mate before making the journey back to Alaskan waters, about a 6,000 mile round-trip, about 30 days each way.

According to Earth Trust, humpback whales feed only during the summer months when they are in cold, nutrient rich waters. Opening their mouths bring in about 500 gallons of water at a time.  They have no teeth, but their baleen plates serve as a strainer to filter out small fish such as herring and mackerel.  They consume 2,000 to 9,000 pounds of fish and krill a day!  Approximately 25% of what they eat during the summer is stored as blubber and used for energy and insulation for the winter–when they come to Hawaii.  They can lose one-third their weight before they eat again! (<;).

The Maui News (2/1/13) reports, “NOAA’s last official full whale survey six years ago found 10,000 whales in Hawaiian waters, with the numbers growing.”

It’s illegal to chase whales or to approach within 100 yards (the length of a football field); however, we can let them come up near us.   Adult humpbacks grow to 38-48 feet long and weigh about a ton a foot—so although they are gentle giants, I get nervous when we are really close.  It’s thrilling, actually.

Waiting for whales

Waiting for whales

We hold our paddles up when we are close to a whale so that vacationing condo dwellers with binoculars don’t report us to the Coast Guard for chasing whales.


Sun peeking through the clouds over Haleakala

Humpback whales become reproductively mature between 4 and 8 years old. Gestation is  eleven to twelve months, so  when she returns to Hawaii,  the mother gives birth to a single calf, which is  approximately 13 feet long and two tons! The mother feeds her newborn about 100 pounds of milk, which is 55% fat, each day.

NOAA says, “Underwater nursing poses unique challenges, which are overcome in a number of ways. First, nursing occurs in short bursts. Second, the mammary gland is triggered by direct pressure, so the calf can insert a rolled tongue into the mammary gland and trigger the flow of milk. Third, the consistency of the milk is thick, and much closer to what we would call yogurt, this helps the milk stay together rather than dispersing into the surrounding water”<;.

The humpbacks get their name from their arched back.

The humpbacks get their name from their arched backs.

Mom and calf

Mom and calf

The calf nurses for five to seven months until  back in nutrient-rich waters of the North; then the calf is weaned. By then, the calf has doubled its length and has increased its weight five times to about 27 feet and 10 tons. It will continue growing until about ten years old.  Usually, a female humpback will bear one calf every two or three years, which is one reason they are an endangered species.   Although no one yet knows for certain,  the average life span of humpbacks in the wild is estimated to be between 30 and 40 years.

Humpback whale--they are the size of a bus!  From :

A humpback whale is  the size of a bus! From : <;

A pectorial fin  - with the windmill farm on the West Maui Mountains in the background.*

A pectoral fin – with the windmill farm on the West Maui Mountains in the background.

Pectoral fins

Pectoral fins

The pectoral fin of the humpback can be one-third its body length.

The pectoral fin of the humpback can be one-third its body length.

Fishermen tell about the fish that got away.  This is my photo of the calf that had just breached--jumping up and splashing down.  We think it had just nursed and was feeling good!

Fishermen tell about the fish that got away. This is my photo of the calf that had just breached–jumping up with 2/3 of its body out of the water and splashing down. We think it had just nursed and was feeling good!

Last Thursday going out  even earlier than normal, we were on the water at 5:30am in the dark with a cloud-covered sky, so we didn’t even have starlight.  We came up upon a whale that may have been sleeping.  The first indication was when we heard it breathe.  We were so close I could have touched it with my paddle!   That’s too close.  Remember even the newborns are at least two tons.

Perhaps a wave goodbye

Perhaps a wave goodbye

The humpbacks are in Hawaii from about November until May, but the peak part of the season is from January to March.  There is still time for you to see humpbacks here this year.  Come visit.

Aloha, Renée

* Unless otherwise noted, photos by me



About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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