Whalewatching 2015 Season

28 Jan

28 December 2014 to 17 January 2015 Cruise Notes — For me, this year’s whale-watching season will consist of 22 trips (“cruises”) from December 28th to the last weekend in April.

Breaching whale - 4 January 2015, Ma'alaea Bay, Maui

Breaching whale – 4 January 2015, Ma’alaea Bay, Maui (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Rather than just publish the best photographs of each month with some commentary as I did last season, I’m going to post some of the more-typical shots I take along with commentary from each cruise, to give you a better idea of what I go through to get the few good shots I come up with each season. To do that, I included comments about the “ones that got away”, something that happens to all serious nature photographers. [Spoiler Alert: Scroll down to the 17 January cruise for the BEST January shots.]

28 December 2014 Cruise — In all the December cruises I’ve been on, there seem to be relatively few whales in Ma’alaea Bay or the channel waters between Maui and the islands of Lana’i, Kaho’olawe, and Molokini. Usually all I see on these cruises is the occasional mother-and-calf pair or scattered solitary adult whales. I’ve never seen competition pods and the more-interesting surface-active behaviors associated with such groupings of whales.

Flukes-up dive , Ma'alaea Bay, Maui,  3 December 2010

Flukes-up dive , Ma’alaea Bay, Maui, 3 December 2010 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Sadly, I have only taken 12 good shots in December over the last eight years. I never have much luck that early in the Humpback whale migration (from October through May). My 28 December cruise was no exception: Although the weather conditions were ideal, I deleted most of the whale shots from my flash card. Captain Joe tried very hard to find more whales, but the day was so whale-free he was reduced to concentrating on a quiet mother-and-calf pair and a single whale that would occasionally pop to the surface, blow, and then quickly dive as we tried to approach it. I took more shots of the on-shore scenery and other boats than of whales that day.

3 January Cruise — Today the whales cooperated but the weather didn’t.

3 January 2015: Couldn't tell a whale from a whitecap!

3 January 2015: Couldn’t tell a whale from a whitecap! (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Two days before, a deep low-pressure trough (known as a “Kona Storm”) slid in from the southwest and parked over Maui, bringing torrential rains, strong southwest winds, and heavy seas with 6-to-8-foot swells that gave my 300 mm lens’ image stabilizer a real workout!

Blow in rough seas

In conditions like this, the only way to spot a whale is when it blows… and even then the plume of water is blown away almost the instant it exits the whale’s blowholes. (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

The combination of several very seasick passengers and others moving to the lower deck and spacious cabin of the Ocean Intrigue made for crowded conditions below and lots of room for me to move around on the bridge deck, so I was able to get several good shots of a couple of very active newborn calves and a small pod of Common Bottlenose Dolphins. However, the wind whipping unimpeded across the bay was so fierce you couldn’t tell a whale from a whitecap, so I still came up well short of my usual number of shots for the day.

Nice flukes-up dive

This calf made me remember how much fun it was just being a kid in the water! The calf’s short right-side pectoral fin can be seen as a bright bluish-white blur just below the surface. At maturity, this whale’s pectoral fins will exceed 15 feet in length, a third of its total body length and the longest pectoral fins in the world. (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Pec-wave: 3 Jan 2015

A newborn Humpback whale calf rolls over onto its right side and performs a brief “pec wave”, lazily waving its all-white pectoral fin from side to side. This commonly-observed behavior may be a form of visual communication, a means of dissipating excess body heat, or simply the juvenile cetacean equivalent of “Wheee!” (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

Calf at the surface: 3 Jan 2015

A Humpback whale calf shows off its entire 15-foot length as it cruises along at the surface. The numerous bumps (known as “tubercles”) on its rostrum (upper jaw) are clearly visible, as are its short dorsal fin, the axial ridge of its peduncle (extending from just behind the dorsal fin to the base of it flukes), and the leading edge of its flukes. Mature adult Humpbacks average 45 to just under 50 feet in length. It’s worth noting that an adult whale rarely shows its entire length at the surface, except when breaching. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

 

4 January Cruise — What a difference a day makes! The Kona storm with its heavy seas and high winds literally vanished overnight, leaving the bay’s waters glass-smooth with only the gentlest hint of the southwest swells of yesterday.

First breach of the day! -- 4 January 2015

First breach of the day! — 4 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Although whale naturalists tell us that surface weather conditions don’t really influence whale behavior, it seemed the good weather made all the whales we saw that day more acrobatic and active at the surface.

This member of a four-whale competition pod performed several repetitive breaches. Note the spray of seawater exiting both sides of his mouth

This member of a four-whale competition pod performed several repetitive breaches. Note the spray of seawater exiting both sides of his mouth. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

I captured several nice breaches, most of which were of whale that came fairly close to the boat.

This member of a four-whale competition pod performed several repetitive breaches. Note the many bump-like tubercles located on the upper and lower jaws. The "blowhole" (AKA "nares", actually TWO holes) is also visible atop the rostrum.

This member of a four-whale competition pod performed several repetitive breaches. Note the many bump-like tubercles located on the upper and lower jaws. The “blowhole” (AKA “nares”, actually TWO holes) is also visible atop the rostrum. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

In addition to some decent shots of pectoral-fin-slapping behavior and a shot or two of calf breaches, I managed to shoot a small pod of Spinner Dolphins as they were riding the Ocean Intrigue’s bow wake.

This female (?) Humpback whale (far right) has rolled over onto her right side, exposing the tip of her left fluke (barely visible at the surface) and her very long (4 m) pectoral fin, which she waves gently as two males in her competition pod struggle for a position to get closer to her.

This female (?) Humpback whale (far right) has rolled over onto her right side, exposing the tip of her left fluke (barely visible at the surface) and her very long (4 m) pectoral fin, which she waves gently as two males in her competition pod struggle for a position to get closer to her. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

I've always felt that this pectoral-wave was the cetacean equivalent of "Hey, sailor... over here!"

I’ve always felt that this pectoral-wave was a signal to males of a female’s receptiveness, the cetacean equivalent of “Hey, sailor… over here!” 4 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

A pair of Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) rocket past the dive boat, breaking the surface just in front of the bow. Spinners and other dolphin species seem to enjoy riding the bow wakes of motor vessels in Ma'alaea Bay. Also known as Gray's or Hawaiian spinner dolphin (S. l. longirostris), from the central Pacific Ocean around Hawaii; may be a mixture of broadly similar delphinid subtypes found worldwide.

A pair of Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) rocket past my boat, breaking the surface just in front of the bow. Spinners and other dolphin species seem to enjoy riding the bow wakes of motor vessels in Ma’alaea Bay. Also known as Gray’s or Hawaiian spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris longirostris), from the central Pacific Ocean around Hawaii; may be a mixture of broadly similar delphinid subtypes found worldwide. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

The only drawback to the day’s shooting was that some other behaviors, including two other breaches, were spoiled because I had the image stabilizer turned off while in burst mode, which resulted in a lot of blurred and unusable images.

 

10 January Cruise — Today’s cruise was everything I’ve come to expect from January whale watching! The weather was quite mild, not too warm, and windless. Though not glass-smooth, the seas were calm and free of whitecaps. The whales were out in force, as well: Captain Joe spotted the first pod almost immediately after we left the harbor.

The five members of this competition pod have formed a neat little conga-line trailing behind the female (at the far right end of the conga line).

The five members of this competition pod have formed a neat little conga-line trailing behind the female (at the far right end of the line). 10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on image.)

Their energetic blows and (later on) conspicuous fluke- and pectoral fin-slapping behaviors indicated this was a high-energy competition pod with at least four males chasing one female.

Four members of a fairly active and chaotic competition pod.

Four members of a fairly active and chaotic competition pod. At times the whales all seemed to be heading in opposite directions. 10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Very nice shot of a flukes-up dive by a young calf.

Very nice shot of a flukes-up dive by a young calf.
10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

 “bubble-blowing” behavior

One member of a surface-active competition pod exhibits “bubble-blowing” behavior. This tactic is used by males in a competition pod to create a bubble screen to obscure the female from other pursuing males. 10 January 2015  (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

A male participant in a competition pod performs a head lunge in an attempt to ram or at least intimidate other males in the pod.

A male participant in a surface-active competition pod performs a “head lunge” in an attempt to intimidate other males in the pod. 10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on image.)

A fast-moving whale comes in close to my boat, paralleling it, and eventually passing under the hull. The nares (twin “blowholes”) and cranial tubercles (prominent bumps) are clearly visible. 10 January 2015

A fast-moving whale comes in close to my boat, paralleling it, and eventually passing under the hull. The nares (twin “blowholes”) and cranial tubercles (prominent bumps) are clearly visible.
10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

After losing so many shots using my camera’s burst mode, I resolved to restrict my mid-distance and long-distance shots to single-shot mode, using burst mode only when the whales came in close. That worked quite well: I ended up with more than 110 “keepers” out of 880 shots.

Very nice shot of a flukes-up dive by a young calf. 10 January 2015

Very nice shot of a flukes-up dive by a young calf.
10 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

 

11 Jan 2015 cruise — Excellent weather with no white caps and only a light breeze; too bad the whales didn’t match the weather! We chased after about a dozen different whales, but when we’d motor over to where they’d last been at the surface, they were nowhere to be seen. Many long minutes later, we’d see them a few hundred yards away and set off after them, only to find them gone again — Captain Joe calls this “Whale Ping-Pong.” I shot less than 20 frames in two hours, none of which were worth keeping, as the subject whales were either too far away for a decent photograph or were not doing anything very interesting. Odd thing is, on the few cruise-days like that are like this, where we’re skunked for whale sitings, I really don’t care… IMHO, a day on the bay without whales is better than ANY day on land!

Pacific Whale Foundation's MV Ocean Odyssey

Pacific Whale Foundation’s MV Ocean Odyssey leaving Ma’alaea Harbor. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

17 Jan 2015 cruise — Barely a half-hour into this 9 am cruise I counted eight different whales breaching relatively close to the boat.

A Humpback calf practicing breaching just of Papawai Point.

A Humpback calf practicing breaching off Papawai Point. The white pylon of the McGregor Point light is visible in the upper right corner of the photo. (To see a larger version. click on the image.)

The breaches were happening so fast and so close to one another that I couldn’t photograph all of them!

Breaching Humpback whale #1

Nice close-up shot of a Humpback calf practicing breaching, an activity that will help strengthen its swimming muscles in preparation for its 2,400-mile journey to Alaskan waters with its mother in a few more days. 17 January 2015 (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Full breach -- 17 Jan 2015

A small pod of whales almost a mile-and-a-half from the boat included one adult who was repeatedly breaching for 20 or 30 minutes, so I had plenty of time to set up my shots of him. This a “full breach”, where the whale launches itself clear out of the water. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

breach sequence longshot 17 Jan 2015

For this same whale as in the photo above, I switched to burst mode and shot an entire breach from start to finish. Click on the image to view the full-sized version of this sequence of shots.

baby off Papawai Point -- 17 Jan 2015

Nice shot of a young Humpback whale performing a breach off Papawai Point at the mouth of Ma’alaea Bay. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

About a third of the breaching whales I photographed that morning were newborn calves. They are, by far, the best photo subjects because they don’t yet have the lung capacity to remain submerged for more than two or three minutes, so they spend most of their time at the surface. Since they’re young they tend to be very active, performing lots of acrobatic jumps and lunges at the surface.

mouth-open breach -- 17 Jan 2015

During a particularly acrobatic breach, this calf opened its mouth, displaying the light-colored plates of baleen it uses when filtering out krill and small bait fish during feeding. It’s extremely rare to see Humpies open their mouths in Hawaiian waters because adults do not feed while here (there being nothing for them to eat in our too-warm waters). (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

There were lots of other interesting behaviors on display that morning: I got a nice shot of a female doing a graceful flukes-up dive at the same time as her male escort.

double flukes-up dive -- 17 Jan 2015

Double flukes-up dive. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

We encountered several surface-active competition pods whose male participants were displaying some very aggressive behavior.

Head lunge -- 17 Jan 2015

A male Humpback in a surface-active competition pod throws its upper body well out of the water in a particularly aggressive behavior known as a “head lunge.” Males often end a head lunge by slamming down on the body of a competing male, raking the barnacle-encrusted chin plate  back and forth, which occasionally draws blood. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

head lunge 2 -- 17 Jan 2015

A male Humpback whale performing an aggressive head lunge shows off the tubercles of its upper and lower jaws. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Many of the mature adult whales I saw that day were sporting fairly impressive accumulations of barnacles and other exoparasites on various parts of their bodies.

barnacles - closeup  17 Jan 2015

Close-up shot of barnacles encrusting a whale’s pectoral fin, lower jaw plate (to the right of the fin), and the protruding chin plate (far right). (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

barnacles on belly and pec fin

This female Humpback shows off a nice collection of barnacles on her ventral pleats and the tip of her right pectoral fin. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

barnacles on pectoral fins and flukes

Rolled over onto her side, the barnacles encrusting the leading edges of her flukes and right pectoral fin were visible. (To view a larger version, click on the image.)

barnacles on flukes -- 17 Jan 2015

This immature-adult whale, probably a newly-weened yearling, has already accumulated a nice collection of barnacles on the leading edges of its flukes. (To see a larger version, click on the image.)

 

January 18, 24, and 25 cruises — The January 18th and 24th cruises were very disappointing. Either the whales were scarce at the surface or the ones I did see weren’t doing anything worth photographing. On both occasions I deleted all of the pitifully few shots I took. Granted, after more than eight years of photographing Maui’s Humpback whales I’ve been spoiled by too many great photo opportunities. However, because I go on more than 20 cruises a season, if I’m not selective about what shots I keep for my photo gallery, I can all-too-easily end up with dozens of “flukes-up dive” shots and several hundred shots of whales “logging” at the surface. So this season I’m deleting repetitious shots before I even begin processing the keepers for my gallery website.

For the January 25th cruise, the weather and, as a consequence, my mood were so foul I just gave up on going out on the bay that day. A stationary front over the West Maui Mountains had been alternating between downpours, rainy squall lines, and occasional breaks in the clouds quickly followed by yet more squalls. Captain Joe had taken out the Ocean Intrigue earlier that morning, but as it headed back into the harbor channel, the big 65-foot catamaran was completely obscured by a dense curtain of rain. By that time the strong winter winds had whipped the seas into a solid-white froth, and I knew I’d have little chance of spotting even the largest competition pods, but I was still determined to go out, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came: When I got out of my truck’s dry and warm cab, another squall line hit and I was soon soaking wet clear through my jacket. Ordinarily rough seas and rain don’t bother me aboard ship, but my beloved 300 mm Canon L-series telephoto lens is, unlike me, not waterproof. Having experienced a similar rain-soaked cruise last February when the camera body and lens were exposed to a lot more moisture than they should have been, I got back in the truck, bagged the camera, and headed for home in a driving rain.

I have one more cruise scheduled for January, and I’m hoping to redeem this somewhat disappointing half-month.

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One Response to “Whalewatching 2015 Season”

  1. Liz Schaaf-Croonquist 21 February 2015 at 8:19 AM #

    You weren’t kidding about the Jan 17th cruise! Unbelievable shots, Mike! John, Jr & family are in Oahu this week and hoping to see some whales, as well. Thanks for posting!

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