Whale Watching on Maui: “March Madness”

29 Mar

In years passed, March was usually the month when the number of Humpback whale sightings began to dwindle in Maui’s waters, particularly so in Ma’alaea Bay, my front yard. This year has been VERY different!

"Look at me, Mom!"

Full of piss-and-vinegar, a young Humpback calf performs an awkward imitation of a breach as its mother (note dorsal fin in bottom-left corner if picture) cruises slowly at its side, keeping a close eye on junior. — 15 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on image.)

I’ve taken thousands of photographs during each of my boat trips during the first two weeks of March. I’ve seen a lot more newborn whales than is usual: at times it seems that every pod on the bay (and most of those outside the bay in the inter-island channels) includes a mother and newborn calf, as well as one or two hopeful male escorts.

Humpback whale cow and calf tableau.

A very young Humpback whale calf remains at the surface while its mother takes a short trip “downstairs”. She won’t be down long because her small charge has equally small lung capacity and is unable to join her on an extended dive. — 15 March 2014 (To see larger version, click on image.)

My late February and early March whale-watching cruises have encountered so MANY mother-and-calf pods on the bay: other “cattle boats” can be seen continually shuttling back and forth between four or five small pods of whales scattered about the shallows, vainly trying to get a good view of them all. The boat captains refer to this phenomenon as “Whale Ping-Pong.”

Whales dancing in my front yard!

Those of us fortunate enough to live along Ma’alaea Bay’s extensive shoreline are often treated to the sight and sound of breaching baby whales, night or day. — 15 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on image.)

One afternoon in early March, the whale traffic around my boat was so dense Captain Joe had to take the boat’s engines offline and just drift about on the wind, hoping the three separate pods of whales surrounding the boat would disperse enough so that we could get underway again without fear of striking one of the circling whales. Sure enough, one immense mother with “junior” in tow came in very close to the motionless boat. Her newborn soon became a little too curious, headed straight for us and subsequently popped up between INTRIGUE’s twin catamaran hulls… right under the boat!

A curios Humpback whale calf

When whales come THIS CLOSE to the boat, it’s called “mugging the boat.” This youngster pushed it a little too far for its mother’s comfort… Read on!

While the boat’s passengers were delighted by this attention, Mom was not amused. She quickly surfaced and came up abreast of the starboard hull and gave the 60-foot-long boat a gentle but firm nudge sideways, startling the captain, crew and all aboard. There was no mistaking her intentions: failing to keep her youngster away from the boat, she decided to push the boat out of junior’s way! Eighty thousand pounds of muscular whale coming in contact with INTRIGUE’s hull felt like we had been lifted up none-too-gently and effortlessly shoved aside.

Coming in close for a better look!

Drawn closer by curiosity, a Humpback whale calf cruises alongside my boat after approaching it to get a closer look at the noisy mechanical visitor. — 8 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Most of this season’s newborn Humpback whales that I saw seemed to engage in more frequent, more energetic and much longer-lasting sessions of extended fluke slapping and repetitive breaching than I’ve seen in the last 5 to 8 years. I’m not sure WHY this “phenomenon” is significant or what caused it: It might be due to a local population “boomlet” of excessively healthy calves birthed by an abundance of healthy, well-fed mothers freshly returned from the Alaskan feeding grounds. Whatever the cause, the very welcome result (at least for this photographer) was many opportunities to photograph a lot of spectacular behavior.

Fluke slap happy!

A rambunctious Humpback whale calf performs an energetic fluke slap. This individual continued repetitive fluke slaps for more than 15 minutes without pause as my boat slowly tracked it’s meandering progress around the bay. — 9 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on image.)


A peduncle throw

A Humpback whale calf performs a slashing sideways tail slap known as a peduncle throw. Mature adult whales use this behavior to signal extreme aggression or agitation. — 9 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Breaching calf

The whale boat (and presumably the calf’s mother) had a difficult time keeping up with this junior speedster who was repeatedly breaching as it sped along just ahead of the boat. Its prominent ventral pleats are clearly visible on its underside. — 9 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Whale outside Ma'alae Harbor fluke-slapping

A Humpback whale calf performs some energetic fluke slaps in the shallow waters just offshore from Ma’alaea Harbor’s breakwater. — 15 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

The following image is unusual in that I was able to photograph a calf displaying the distinctive gray coloration that is characteristic of a newborn: the gray “racing stripe” running along the flanks of this youngster indicates that it is only a few hours old.

Gray baby!

This Humpback whale calf performed a long series of exuberant in-place fluke slaps for several minutes. Note the prominent light-gray “racing stripe” coloration on its flanks, indicating that is a newborn calf possibly only several hours old. This coloration disappears a few hours after birth.       9 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

This last image is my favorite baby-breach shot of 2014 because the calf jumped so far out of the water that its right eye is clearly visible (the bright white spot just above and to the left of the “white stripe” that marks the base of the right-side pectoral fin).

Breaching baby with right eye visible

9 March 2014 (To see a larger version, click on image.)


So… my next blog post will be a wrap-up of the 2014 whale-watching season on Ma’alaea Bay (the season ended for me last weekend). I’ll include some of the highlights of this year’s shooting, comparing 2014 to previous years. I hope you stop by and read the post.

One Response to “Whale Watching on Maui: “March Madness””

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