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

See them splash; see the jungle, too

 •  Gigantic visitors always good for a fascinating show
 •  Typical humpback behaviors: breaching, slapping and singing (Flash player required)
 •  Migration schedule is not well understood
 •  A whale-watching job as easy as 1-2-3

By Kate Wiley
Special to The Advertiser

The Ka'a'awa Valley bike trail offers great ocean views and a chance for riders to spot whales during winter months.

John Alford

As whale-watching season descends upon the Islands, tourists and kama'aina alike are watching as the animals breach and frolic in nearby waters. Some observers go in search of the magnificent mammals by catamaran or even kayak, while others use bicycles.

On a recent Saturday, I followed local mountain bike enthusiast John Alford to the apex of a bluff on O'ahu's eastern shore. Our tour dismounted from 10 identical mountain bikes. Perched at the entrance to Ka'a'awa Valley, we had a bird's-eye view of the coastline.

Alford surveyed the blue expanse below for any white disruptions that might reveal the presence of a humpback whale. The O'ahu-born cycling guide has written two books on mountain-biking trails in Hawai'i, but he knows a fair amount about whales, too.

Each year the North Pacific humpbacks migrate from Alaska after having spent the summer getting fat on fish and krill (an adult humpback consumes more than 2,000 pounds in a single day.) Research shows the whales don't eat while in Hawaiian waters; instead, they live off their blubber supply. The average whale will lose a quarter of its body weight while cruising around the Islands.

"As you can see," quips Alford, "Hawai'i can be a great place to get active and lose weight!"

In Hawai'i, the humpbacks focus on mating and calving. Reproductive activities seem to play a hand in the frequent whale sightings in Hawai'i. Exposed fins and tails may be courtship displays. Of course, the humpback's most crowd-pleasing behavior is breaching, where the whale propels two-thirds of its body out of the water. These acrobatic displays can be seen from miles away.

Researchers have a hunch that breaching, likewise, may be related to courtship. Occasionally a mother whale will breach, apparently in the interest of teaching her calf. The odds of seeing a mother and calf pair at the surface are good; juveniles must surface to breathe more often than adults.

Once the cyclists had their fill of whale-watching, the biking adventure continued. But first, an unexpected treat for the movie buffs among us: On the very same bluff, behind a padlocked gate, a converted military bunker revealed Hollywood's love affair with Ka'a'awa Valley in a series of movie photos and other memorabilia. The valley's sheer, verdant walls appear in such films as "Godzilla," "Jurassic Park" and "Windtalkers."

But what really interested this group is the valley's network of single-track trails, ideal for mountain biking. The 1,000-acre valley is private property, part of Kualoa Ranch. It's open to individuals and groups with permission from the owners.

Kualoa means long back, and the valleys and history of this ranch are indeed long. In ancient times, Kualoa was considered one of the most sacred places on O'ahu. Young chiefs used its varied topography to train in sports, fishing, swimming and canoeing. In 1850, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, the great-great-great grandfather of the present owner, bought the land from King Kamehameha III for $1,300. With the purchase of additional land, the family built a sugar plantation and mill.

Today, as a working cattle ranch, the property lures tens of thousands of visitors a year. The only way to ride into Ka'a'awa Valley on two wheels is with Bike Hawaii, but Kualoa Ranch offers horseback and all-terrain vehicle rides around the property. In addition to the trail system and movie museum, the ranch has built a replica of a small Hawaiian village, with traditional grass dwellings and kalo (taro) cultivation.

Next, our tour group geared up for a little exercise. A challenging uphill climb afforded us yet another magical vista. Alford said he has spotted whales from these elevated trails despite being miles inland.

The low-key riders among us coasted down along the Green Monster pasture that got its name for its gnarly ascent. More advanced riders honed their skills on a single track that wound in and out of the lush forest canopy. On the return leg, a bubbling stream crossed our path and provided a much-needed natural shower as we pedaled through it.

So you don't need sea legs to see humpback whales. With a little two-wheeled help, you don't even need to be at water's edge.