Letter from Hawaii: Whale Tales
By Tom Passavant
“It’s whale soup out there,” says the captain. It isn’t exactly “thar she blows!”, but it still neatly sums up what we’re about to encounter on a blazing blue-sky morning last week. It’s 8 a.m. and Trilogy Elua, a 50-foot catamaran, is about to head out of Maui’s Lahaina harbor for a two-hour whale-watching cruise. I’d asked our youthful skipper about the chances of close encounters with the humpback whales that spend the winter in Hawaiian waters. After all, for the past few days we’d been watching from the shore as whales spouted, breached, and slapped their flukes and fins so often that it was hard to keep your eyes on the road as you drove along the island’s western shores.
Every winter, especially from late December until early April, about 8,000 whales, having made the long journey back from Alaska, act like so many tourists, basking in the warm Hawaiian waters, cavorting with the opposite sex, and taking care of the resulting babies. While all of the Hawaiian islands offer winter whale-watching tours, the calm and protected waters off West Maui, bounded by Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe, are basically one big bowlful of cetaceans.
Humpbacks are still on the Endangered Species list, but their numbers are recovering nicely—lately about 7% per year. Our boat has barely left the dock when we spy a pair of juvenile whales so close to shore they’re actually swimming between sailboats anchored just off the harbor. Motoring out to sea, we follow various pods as they glide lazily near the surface, then dive into the relatively shallow waters. Later, we cut away from the chase and the crew kills the engine. As we drift, the captain pulls out a portable speaker linked to a hydrophone. When he flips a switch, out comes an eerie cacophony of quacks and moos and moans—the whales’ famous songs. Only the males sing, we learn, and only here in their breeding grounds. They all spin out essentially the same song (undoubtedly some whale variation on “Hey, chica!”), which changes slightly from year to year. While scientists are still scratching their heads over many aspects of these mysterious emanations, you can listen to whale songs live at whalesong.net.
Boats are not permitted to get within 100 yards of any whales, but if the whales come to the boat, well, that’s nature taking its course. As we’re about to head back, three fully grown whales, each maybe 45 feet long and weighing 45 tons, swim directly toward our boat and glide right under us. Then a female and her calf, the youngster maybe 15 feet long, approach us leisurely, so close you could touch them.
“She’s showing off the baby!,” exclaims one of our crewmembers. They’re all naturalist-sailors, so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about cetaceans you imagine they’ll dive overboard and swim away in whale-induced bliss at any moment. We’d picked a Trilogy boat for our cruise because of the company’s stellar reputation and environmental cred. Getting mom to cruise by with the kid was a bonus.
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.