Competition Pods: Maui’s Humpback Whales Play Rough

3 Oct

AS I WRITE THESE WORDS, several thousand Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae, meaning “large-winged New Englander” in Latin) have already begun the two-month journey from the cold waters of their feeding grounds off the respective coasts of southern Alaska, Siberia, and western Canada to Hawaii’s warmer waters.

Competition pod - Jan/Feb

Competition pods like this one become very active in Ma’alaea Bay, at the height of the migration (January-February).
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Some of the mature females are carrying an extra load: the unborn calves conceived in Hawaiian waters during their last southern migration. Other females are about to come into heat and are thinking wistfully of the hot Hawaiian sex to be had off the southern coast of Maui.

Competition pod, Kihei

The crew of this sailboat anchored just offshore from Kihei on Ma’alaea Bay suddenly found themselves surrounded by eight angrily blowing whales of a surface-active competition pod.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

After all, the water-cooler buzz in the whale world has it that Maui na oka oi (“Maui is Best”). Come late November/early December, the first pods of birth mothers, hot whale babes and stoked whale dudes will make the beach scene in and around Maui’s Ma’alaea Bay, the heart of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. When the “dating action” seriously heats up in the peak months of the migration (January and February), the dominant male Humpbacks vie for the attentions of females in estrus, and COMPETITION PODS begin to roil the already wind-whipped waters of the bay and the channel waters.

What IS a Competition Pod?

Simply put, a Competition Pod is a group of surface-active whales that consists of a single sexually receptive female actively being pursued by a group of males. Competition among the males for the female involves several intense, often violent behaviors as each male tries to gain the position closest to her,  to become the “primary escort.” The number of whales in a “comp pod” ranges from as few as three to as many as 25, with 10 to 12 whales being a more typical pod size. Individual males may join and leave the pod during its short duration, which is usually no more than a few hours. I’ve seen comp pods start off with three or four whales, then suddenly grow to more than 15 whales in a matter of minutes as the commotion attracts individual “joiners” who may be thousands of meters away. Unlike the other types of social behaviors exhibited by Humpbacks, the swiftly moving competition pods never stay in one place for very long, often traveling several miles before dissipating. After a good deal of thrashing about, bumping of heads, jostling, shoving, charging and counter-charging among the male combatants, the competition ends when the primary escort either is displaced by another more dominant male or manages to maintain his position, whereupon the pod breaks up.

#2 "joiner"

A lone Humpback charges past my boat in a hurry to join a nearby competition pod.(Click on image to see a larger version.) 


Types of Aggressive Behavior Seen in Competition Pods

The Peduncle Throw or Slap — In this extremely aggressive behavior, the entire rear portion of the body (including the “caudal peduncle” and the flukes) is lifted out of the water and brought down sideways, sharply striking the surface of the water or another whale.

#3 Peduncle throw

A “primary escort” male whale lets loose with a very loud peduncle slap to ward off a competing male suitor.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Peduncle slap-2

One male in a particularly violent 12-whale comp pod off Kaho’olawe Island administers one of several hard peduncle slaps to a competitor.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Head Lunge & Inflated Head Lunge — In this behavior, the head is lifted above the surface of the water at about a 45-degree angle as the whale puts on a brief burst of speed. Occasionally a whale performing a head lunge will simultaneously inflate its mouth cavity (expanding its “ventral pleats” or throat grooves) by filling it with hundreds of gallons of water. Both of these tactics may be employed while slamming broadside into another whale, as shown below.

Head lunge

A member of a comp pod lends emphasis to its head lunge by slamming broadside into another male.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

inflated head lunge

A fast-moving male slams into an oncoming swell after completing an inflated head lunge. Note how the lower jaw is distended, stretching the ventral pleats (throat grooves).
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Jaw Clapping — A whale may signal its stress and/or anger by violently snapping its lower jaw against it upper jaw. In competition pods, individuals may follow an aggressive head-lunge with repeated jaw-clapping.


The male in the middle of this photo has just performed a head lunge and follows up his threat display by jaw-clapping.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Lots of Pushing and Shoving Behavior

Pushing-and-Shoving match

Two male participants in a high-speed comp pod do their best to push and shove to get next to Big Mama, the larger whale in the background.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

…as well as Copious Splashing and Blowing Behavior


“GOTCHA!!!” “Did NOT! I got YOU first!”
(Click on image to see a larger version.)


“Thar she… uh, sorry… THEY blows!!!”
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

As a photographer devoted to the “Humpies” of Ma’alaea Bay, I truly LOVE shooting the whales in competition pods because…


Members of a large competition pod put on a show just off the breakwater of Ma’alaea Yacht Harbor.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

… they are SUCH EXHIBITIONISTS when they’re horny!

About these photos — All of the images herein were shot during my whale-watching cruises with the Pacific Whale Foundation that sails out of Ma’alaea Harbor on the Island of Maui. Each year I go on about 40 cruises in the waters of Ma’alaea Bay and the Kealaikahiki Channel between Maui and the Island of Kaho’olawe. For shoots like this, I take along my reliable old Canon 40D body and just my favorite telephoto lens, a Canon “L” series 70-300 mm (f4-5.6) lens.

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  1. Humpback Whales: Song, Dance, 20 Feet from Stardom - -

    […] to attract considerable attention from suitors.  There may be as many as 25 whales in a “competition pod,” although there are usually a dozen or […]

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    […] 2013, Maui’s Ma’alaea Bay was all about competition pods (see “Competition Pods: Maui’s Humpback Whales Play Rough“). In 2014, however, a huge crop of newborns have stollen the show. I have NEVER photographed […]

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