When The Whales Come Close: Maui, 2014

9 Mar
Whales and whale watchers

When the whales come close. 24 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Humpback whales, like most of the other large cetaceans, spend more than 90 percent of their lives underwater, and yet we humans never tire of piling onto crowded “cattle boats” (the term locals use for whale-watching tour boats), braving foul weather, rough seas and seasickness all in hopes of getting even a fleeting glimpse of that 10 percent of the whales’ lives spent at the surface.

A mature Humpback whale swims past, a few meters from my boat.

A mature Humpback whale swims past, a few meters from my boat. The “turquoise flash” at the whale’s side is one of its long (5 meters) pectoral fins, its white coloration turning to blue due to the water’s absorption of all colors but blues and greens. 5 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

That’s why, when our Humpback whales come in close, doing what’s called “mobbing the boat”, this simple, quite random behavior on the part of the whales causes loud gasps of surprise and shouts of pleasure among the long-suffering tour boat passengers, as well as a mad rush to the rails followed by a flurry of madly-clicking camera shutters.

A large Humpback displays its dorsal fin and massive upper body as it performs a "round-out" in preparation for a shallow dive close to my boat.

A large Humpback displays its dorsal fin and massive upper body as it performs a “round-out” in preparation for a shallow dive close to my boat. 2 March 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Seriously, it IS very special when the whales come close, because it presents a wonderful opportunity to see up close not just the various types of surface behaviors like breaching and the violence of a competition pod, but to see the structural details of the bodies of individual whales, to witness at close quarters their graceful immensity, their complete mastery of their environment. In doing so, the whales become more than just the distant subjects of our blurry vacation photographs: they are seen as fellow creatures; personalized, in a sense, by their proximity. On those rare occasions when I have witnessed Humpback whales swimming up to and interacting with the boat, I feel the brief kinship of shared experience with animals that are at once so very alien to my daily life, and yet they are oddly familiar, not so strange after all.

As it cuts across the bow of my boat, a speeding Humpback lifts its head above the surface, displaying the many small protuberances (called "tubercles")  and the larger blowhole crest that serves as a splash-guard for its nasal openings ("nares"). 5 January 2014

As it cuts across the bow of my boat, a speeding Humpback lifts its head above the surface, displaying the many small protuberances (called “tubercles”) and the larger blowhole crest that serves as a splash-guard for its nasal openings (“nares”). 5 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

So… enough with the existential philosophy: let’s look at just exactly WHAT one sees when the whales come in close.

A young-adult Humpback lifts its massive tail ("flukes" ) high out of the water to slam in down again on the surface with a resounding crack that can be heard for miles in all directions. "Fluke slapping" may be a form of communication with other whales, especially when repeated for several minutes in succession, as this whale did. Note the small colonies of barnacles on the tips of the flukes. 2 March 2014

A young-adult Humpback lifts its massive tail (“flukes” ) high out of the water to slam in down again on the surface with a resounding crack that can be heard for miles in all directions. “Fluke slapping” may be a form of communication with other whales, especially when repeated for several minutes in succession, as this whale did. Note the small colonies of barnacles on the tips of the flukes. 2 March 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

A Humpback calf, only a few weeks old, lifts the lower half of its body (the "caudal peduncle") out of the water as it performs scores of fluke-slaps, seemingly just for the sheer joy of doing it! 2 March 2014

A Humpback calf, a few weeks old, lifts the lower half of its body (the “caudal peduncle”) out of the water as it performs scores of fluke-slaps, seemingly just for the sheer joy of doing it! 2 March 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

A mature adult Humpback displays the ventral aspect (underside) of its flukes as it does a flukes-up dive. The unique-as-a-fingerprint coloration is clearly visible, and can be used by researchers to identify this individual whale should it be spotted when it returns to Maui's waters. 2 March 2014

A mature adult Humpback displays the ventral aspect (underside) of its flukes as it does a flukes-up dive. The unique-as-a-fingerprint coloration is clearly visible, and can be used by researchers to identify this individual whale should it be spotted when it returns to Maui’s waters. 2 March 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Even very young whales are beset by the nuisance of barnacles, as can be seen on the fluke-tips of this weeks-old calf. It's thought that a lot of the splashing, tail-thrashing, and jumping behaviors so commonly displayed by Humpback whales of all ages is meant to dislodge these unwelcome hitchhikers. 22 February 2014

Even very young whales are beset by the nuisance of barnacles, as can be seen on the fluke-tips of this weeks-old calf. It’s thought that a lot of the splashing, tail-thrashing, and jumping behaviors so commonly displayed by Humpback whales of all ages is meant to dislodge these unwelcome hitchhikers. 22 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

A young calf frolics playfully  as it swims very close to its mother (her knobby head is visible just above the surface to the left of the calf). In a few weeks, when the calf is strong enough to make the trip, it will accompany its mother northeastward to the feeding grounds of the coastal waters of Alaska. 22 February 2014

A young calf frolics playfully as it swims very close to its mother (her knobby head is visible just above the surface to the left of the calf). In a few weeks, when the calf is strong enough to make the trip, it will accompany its mother northeastward to the feeding grounds of the coastal waters of Alaska. 22 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

An large female Humpback (her calf is submerged at her far side) "blows" as she crosses the bow of my boat. The water and steam of her exhalation reached me on the flying bridge of the INTRIGUE, more than five meters above her! There was "whale snot" in that blow, too! 9 February 2014

An large female Humpback (her calf is submerged at her far side) “blows” as she crosses the bow of my boat. The water and steam of her exhalation reached me on the flying bridge of the INTRIGUE, more than five meters above her! There was “whale snot” in that blow, too! 9 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

This female Humpback and her calf perform a "double breach", a behavior rarely seen at such close quarters! 13 January 2014

This female Humpback and her calf (closest to the camera) perform a “double breach”, a behavior rarely seen at such close quarters! 13 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

A female Humpback, having rolled over onto her side, waves a 15-foot-long pectoral fin as a male participant in a competition pod swims abreast of her. It's believed that the "pec wave" signifies that a female is receptive to the sexual attentions of surrounding males. Could be whale sex!!! 25 January 2014

A female Humpback, having rolled over onto her side, waves a long pectoral fin as a male swims abreast of her. It’s believed the “pec wave” signifies that a female is receptive to the sexual attentions of surrounding males. Could be whale sex!!! 25 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

I love this shot! A solitary whale swimming close-in on our port side waves its bright-white pectoral fin, displaying its prominent tubercles on the leading-edge of the fin. That's the right tip of the whale's flukes protruding above the surface in the foreground. 22 February 2014

I love this shot! A solitary whale swimming close-in on our port side waves its bright-white pectoral fin, displaying its prominent tubercles on the leading-edge of the fin. That’s the right tip of the whale’s flukes protruding above the surface in the foreground. 22 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Passengers aboard the Pacific Whale Foundation's M/V OCEAN ODYSSEY check out a young Humpback (...or is it the other way around?) performing fluke-slaps. 9 February 2014

Passengers aboard the Pacific Whale Foundation’s M/V OCEAN ODYSSEY check out a young Humpback (…or is it the other way around?) performing fluke-slaps. 9 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

One Response to “When The Whales Come Close: Maui, 2014”

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