And a Final Whale Tale

One last post before I leave Maui, with apologies to my dear friend Janet, who promises to disavow our friendship if I write another post about paradise while she battles snow and ice back in Maryland.

I managed to fit in a whale watching excursion with my favorite group, the non-profit Pacific Whale Foundation. The trip was nearly canceled due to high winds and choppy seas. That, in turn, made photography pretty challenging as the boat rocked and people around me were getting seasick.

In the first hour of the two-hour excursion the humpbacks we saw were pretty distant. There were plenty of blows and a few breaches, but at that distance they were pretty indistinct. I could feel the mood of the first-time tourists crashing, especially the children.

But then, just 50-yards from our boat, a down-and-dirty male popped up. I say that because this guy was busy. I mean really focused like nobody’s business. Whether signaling to nearby females that he was ready, willing and able, or just doing the whale equivalent of beating his chest to ward off other males is anyone’s guess. But he put on an incredible show.

First on the agenda was a full ten minutes of non-stop tail slaps. While not fully understood by marine biologists, they appear to be used to announce one’s presence. These slaps usually last for a minute. This guy must have been on steroids.

As I photographed on the wildly bobbing boat, shooting at high ISO and fast shutter speed to catch the action, most of the shots were of open sky or the side of the boat. But I did manage to catch enough of the action. This guy would arch his tail, bringing it as high as possible, then send it crashing into the sea with a booming thud.

Next up were fin slaps. In this maneuver, he rolled to his side, lifted one of his huge pectoral fins high in the air and then slapped it back on the surface as hard as possible. Boom, thud, over and over.

In an unusual move, especially so close to humans, the mighty behemoth rolled over onto his back, exposing his vulnerable underside to us. It was a humorous few minutes, as he frolicked on the surface, both pectoral fins waving high in the air. Even the resident naturalist was stunned at this prolonged show.

And then, the coup. The big guy disappeared from sight. I kept my camera trained, scanning the immediate area where he had vanished. In seconds he reappeared, rocketing himself out of the ocean like a Trident missile, in a classic breach. As he climbed he did a graceful one-quarter roll that would have earned a 9.8 in Sochi. He landed on his back in a towering shower. After one more breach a minute later he was gone as quickly as he appeared.

I don’t know what the nearby females humpbacks thought of the display, but I think one of them should give this hard-working guy a chance.

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