Not-so-peaceful Giants: Humpback Whale competition pods

1 Apr

All the whale-boat captains on Ma’alaea Bay are saying that the 2012-2013 season was the best one for COMPETITION PODS in many years. The following shots are from this year’s migration and will attest to that belief.

A typical surface-active competition pod

A typical surface-active competition pod — 28 February 2013.

So what IS a “competition pod” ? Basically, it’s a group of between three and 20 (or more) mature Humpback males following a receptive, in-heat female, all the males jostling and shoving each other in order to get close enough to be the “primary escort”, the dominant (usually the biggest, as well) male who swims abreast of the female and hopes to (eventually) copulate with her. The female exercises the right of final refusal or acceptance of her primary escort. As the following photos amply demonstrate, the action in a surface-active competition pod can get pretty rough.  [ NOTE: Mouse-click on the images to see full-sized versions on my photo gallery website. ]

A large male does a peduncle throw

A large male does a peduncle throw to intimidate his adversaries in a violent competition pod — 6 March 2013

While the participants in even the most violent competition pods rarely come away with more than a bloody rostrum and some scraped hide, boats of any size, kayaks, and outrigger canoes that happen to become entangled in the midst of a “comp pod” run the very real risk of being swamped or worse: that’s 80,000 pounds of muscle, bone, and blubber thrashing around in that 45-foot-long frame!

4 whales & NMS boat

A small National Marine Sanctuary research gamely tries to follow a rowdy, fast-moving “comp pod.” — 28 February 2013

Some boat crews find it’s just easier (and safer) to cut their engines and go with the flow, allowing the action to pass by harmlessly (they hope).

comp pod and sailboat

The crew of a sailboat find themselves in the midst of a competition pod in the shallows offshore from Wailea — 8 February 2013

Humpback males are very skilled combatants, using a variety of maneuvers like head lunges to intimidate adversaries and sometimes bodily shove competitors out of position in the comp pod.

two males-headthrust

Two male participants in a competition pod get into a shoving and head-butting match — 25 January 2013

Ma’alaea Bay is not  small, by any means, but with hundreds of whales crowded into its confined space in January and February (the height of the migrational season in Hawaiian waters), many competition pods may gather within a few hundred yards of the shoreline. Sometimes you don’t even need a whale tour boat to get close to the whales!

outside the breakwater of Ma'alaea harbor

Humpbacks are not fussy about where they fight: a nice brawl just outside the breakwater of Ma’alaea harbor — 8 March 2013

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) has a small number of tiny research craft that periodically venture out into the bay waters and those of the deep-water channels between Maui, Kaho’olawe, Molokini, and Lana’i to observe and document the lives and activities of the giant visitors. The captains of these undersized craft are a brave lot, in my opinion: the slightest bump from the pectoral fin or tail flukes of an enraged male participant in a surface-active competition pod could be fatal for all on board.

NMS boat and whale

The captain of an NMS research boat tries to stay out of the way of a male about to slam his head (swollen with several hundred gallons of water in its mouth) down on the back of another member of a competition pod — 28 February 2013

When the breeding frenzy hits them, these big boys and girls DO play rough!

four whales

Four very large males race through the water, trying to keep pace with the female and her primary escort, while simultaneously trying to discourage their fellow podsters from the chase.

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6 Responses to “Not-so-peaceful Giants: Humpback Whale competition pods”

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