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.
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! (<http://earthtrust.org/wlcurric/whales.html>).
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.
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.
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”<http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/ABL/Humpback/AboutHumpbacks.htm>.
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.
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.
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.
* Unless otherwise noted, photos by me