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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 26, 2003

Gigantic visitors always good for a fascinating show

 •  Typical humpback behaviors: breaching, slapping and singing (Flash player required)
 •  See them splash; see the jungle, too
 •  Migration schedule is not well understood
 •  A whale-watching job as easy as 1-2-3

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mother and calf swim in solitude off O'ahu. Mothers and calves usually are the last humpbacks to leave Hawai'i's warm waters.

Doug Perrine

A humpback breaches near watchers aboard the catamaran Ho'onanea.

Doug Perrine

Those aboard Wild Side Specialty Adventure's 42-foot catamaran, Island Spirit, see a whale execute a tail slap at sunset off the Wai'anae Coast.

Torri Cullen

Passengers aboard the Navatek 1 head out to sea, hoping a whale sighting is forthcoming.

Gareth Wynn Williamss

"Whales at 11 o' clock!"

Several hundred yards ahead, off Mokulei'a heading north toward Ka'ena Point, giveaway spouts sprayed the ocean. Seconds later, two massive ridged backs rolled together through the water followed by the slap of whale flukes hitting the ocean surface.

Ray Beatty, captain of the Ho'onanea, a 40-foot catamaran with six passengers and two crew on board, nosed the vessel gently in their direction. As we scanned the ocean, first mate Jimmy Sax drew in a small notebook the whales' unique fluke markings, distinctive patterns of black-and-white pigments on the underside of the tail, used to identify individual humpbacks.

In the midst of January's storm fronts, dangerous surf, kona winds and heavy rains, North Shore weather conditions had eased up enough for Beatty to sail the Ho'onanea out of Hale'iwa Harbor in search of humpback whales. These singing ambassadors of the ocean, Hawai'i's welcome winter visitors, are among the biggest animals seen.

We weren't disappointed.

Migratory parade

Thousands of humpback whales migrate annually from Alaska to Hawai'i, showing up around November and leaving around April. Preferring the island chain's warm, shallow waters for mating, giving birth and nourishing their young, moms and calves are the last to leave on the long haul back to their North Pacific feeding grounds.

Humpbacks are most plentiful off Maui — where thousands of visitors and kama'aina head each winter for the annual whale fest — but humpbacks are visible from all islands. The best places to see them from O'ahu are the North Shore, the Windward coast and between Wai'anae and Ka'ena Point on the Leeward side. Late January, February and March are considered peak viewing times.

In fact, they're hard to miss. Fully grown females — which are bulkier than the males — can weigh 45 tons and reach 60 feet. Their 15-foot flippers, the longest of any whale, have earned the humpback species the name Megaptera or "great-winged." The term humpback comes from the hump on the forward part of the dorsal fin and the way the back flexes upward before they dive.

"Normally, in Hawai'i, we see around 5,000 whales, which is about two-thirds of the entire population of the North Pacific," said Jeff Walters of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

"Some scientists describe the migratory parade as arriving at Kaua'i around October and then working their way down the island chain, arriving at the Big Island around January, February time. Other scientists believe that the reverse course is true. Also, different whales come by at different times."

Males and younger whales arrive first, Walters said, followed by females, and finally, pregnant females. Walters said this year the whales have come later and appear to be increasing in number.

"Pregnant females want to stay up in their feeding grounds as long as possible so they will be as fat and as fully nourished as possible for a healthy birth and nursing," Walters said.

Whale footprints

As Navatek 1 pulled out of Hono-lulu Harbor, four passengers volunteer to hold up a life-size whale fluke made from sail cloth. The 15-foot replica stretches almost the width of the Navatek's broad middle deck.

Between November and April, the 140-foot Navatek 1 leaves daily on whale-sighting tours sailing between Hanauma Bay and Honolulu International Airport, and as far as 20 miles out to sea.

"On the South Shore, it's usual to see up to three whale pods a day through the season," said Susie Rodenkirchen, education coordinator at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab. "The types of pod we see depends on where we are in the season, males and yearlings earlier with pregnant females or mothers and calves seen later."

Whale-watching here is special, she said.

"Humpbacks are very watchable because they spend more time at the surface than other big whales and come closer to shore, where shallow waters offer protection," Rodenkirchen said.

"Whale pods are variable, anywhere between two and 20 whales. Some pods will stay a couple of days, some will move right on out of the area."

But this particular day, there were no sightings. The next day, Navatek passengers spotted a mother, her newborn calf and a male escort.

Up on the Navatek's observation deck, passengers glued their eyes to the ocean. We saw spinner dolphins and flying fish, but no whales. If none is sighted, Navatek issues passengers return tickets for a future date.

"When you weigh 40 tons, you don't have to put in an appearance if you don't want to," said Linda Coble, visiting from Tennessee with her husband, Len.

On the Navatek's port side, the crumbling cliffs of Koko Head, undercut by ocean currents, made their own statement about natural phenomena.

"We're happy just to take in this fabulous scenery," Coble said. "If we get to see whales, then great, but if not, we'll come back at a later date."

When a whale dives, the up-thrust of its tail propels water toward the surface. On the surface this effect can be seen as a round, calm area of flat water, known as a whale's footprint.

"Today is a difficult viewing day. Conditions need to be calm," said Navatek captain James Moody. "Normally our trade winds make footprints visible."

Wai'anae watch

Tori Cullen, a marine biologist, and her husband, Armin, operate Wild Side Specialty Adventure whale-watching tours on their 42-foot catamaran, Island Spirit, out of Wai'anae Harbor. Whales have been showing up on the Leeward coast since Nov. 5, one day behind Maui's first documented sighting.

"It's always kind of a contest," said Tori Cullen, good-naturedly. "... This year we really thought we had it."

Cullen said the best months for sightings are February and March.

"However, there's been a day or two when we have not seen whales at all, and even stranger days when we've seen a bunch of whales in June!" she said. "On average, we will see between three and four different pods a day from now until April. When it's mostly only the moms and calves left, the numbers decline. The largest count we have seen was 13 different pods in two hours."

The Cullens focus on a small number of passengers (four to 15) for what they describe as a whale experience with knowledgeable friends rather than with hundreds of tourists.

The boat has an underwater microphone to pick up and broadcast sounds from the whales. And there are opportunities to get wet.

"At Wai'anae, we have a resident pod of spinner dolphins and a myriad of turtles and flying and tropical fish, so we provide snorkel equipment if the opportunity should arise," Cullen said.

• • •

Typical humpback behaviors: breaching, slapping and singing

Macromedia Flash player required (click here to download the plug-in). Click on a whale for a pop-up animation.

Flash animation by Greg Taylor • The Honolulu Advertiser

• • •

If you go ...

Whale-watch tours operate daily on O'ahu (weather permitting) through April from harbors at Honolulu, Hale'iwa and Wai'anae. Roberts Hawaii Whale Watching Tour

  • Navatek 1 whale tours leave from Pier 6 at Aloha Tower Marketplace at 11.30 a.m. daily. The 2 1/2-hour cruise between Hanauma Bay and Honolulu International Airport includes a buffet lunch. An on-board naturalist provides information and answers questions; $49 ($29 for ages 2-11, kama'aina rate available). 973-1311; www.navatekcruises.com.
  • Star of Honolulu whale tours leave Pier 8 at the Aloha Tower Marketplace at 10 a.m. daily. Cruises begin at $28 ($14 for ages 3-11). 983-7700.
  • Dream Cruises-Honolulu Whale Watch Cruises have two morning and one afternoon sailings a week through April 30. $27.95, ($18.95 for ages 4-12). 592-5200; www.dream-cruises.com/honolulu.
  • North Shore Catamaran Cruises (25 passengers maximum) leave Hale'iwa Harbor at 9 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. daily. The 2 1/2-hour cruise heads toward Ka'ena Point or wherever the whales are: $42 ($21 for ages 2-12). Ray Beatty, 638-8279.
  • Wild Side Specialty Adventures whale-watching tours (15 passengers maximum) leave Wai'anae Harbor at 7 a.m. daily. Marine biologists Tori and Armin Cullen head the four-hour educational cruises off the Leeward coast. Continental breakfast, refreshments and snorkeling equipment are included. The Cullens donate part of the proceeds to the Wild Dolphin Foundation for conservation and research. $95 (15 percent discount for groups of five or more). 306-7273; www.sailhawaii.com.