Whalewatching 2016: Part I

15 Dec
flukes up dive 1

A nice shot of a flukes-up dive to start of the 2015-2016 Humpback whale migration to Maui’s coastal waters. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

11 & 12 December 2015 Cruises

It’s that time again: the Humpback whales have returned to the waters of Ma’alaea Bay (that’s on the “leeward” side of the island for readers who’ve never been to Maui ne).

This season I’ve started cruising on the cattle boats three weeks earlier than usual to catch the milder December weather; by early January rain and rough seas make poor conditions for whale spotting. As you can see in all of the following pics, the light winds, mirror-smooth surface of the water, clear skies, and bright sun made it easy to find my subjects.

Molokini Crater - northeast side

Molokini Island, a submerged volcanic crater halfway between Maui and Kaho’olawe Island. (Click on image to see a larger version.)

One problem with my logic: it’s really too early to see lots of whales and large surface-active competition pods. The few whales that have already arrived are really tired and still recovering from the 2000-plus mile migration from Alaskan waters. Most of these whales just lie quietly at the surface, moving slowly (less than one or two knots an hour) about the shallower waters of the bay and the channel between Maui and Kaho’olawe to the west.

Small craft with a surfaced whale.

It’s REALLY easy to spot whales “logging” at the surface in this kind of calm sunny weather. Trouble is, the whales you DO see are pretty pooped from their long swim from Alaska and so don’t do much except lolly-gag at the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

flukes-up dive - container ship in background

I like this shot of a flukes-up dive in the foreground and the immense cargo ship on the horizon. (Looks better in original size, so… click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

first-day_whales-1

This is a very typical example of what you see when shooting a pod of whales directly into the sun-drenched early-morning haze. I was about a half-mile away from this shot’s subjects, but I still managed to catch one whale’s prodigious “blow”. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

first-day whales-2

For this shot, the Intrigue had moved to within a few hundred meters of the pair of whales, but they were so lazy they didn’t move at all during the several minutes it took the boat to reach them. Pretty lazy, this lot! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

first-day whales-3

When the Intrigue closed with the lazy pair, they finally bestirred themselves enough to disappear below the surface, staying down for about 15 minutes… (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

first-day whales-4

…but then popping back to the surface very close to the boat; close enough to hear the loud “trumpeting” that accompanied the blow of this whale as it exhaled upon surfacing. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

problem shot-into the sun

Shooting this whale at the surface with the bright low-angled morning sun at its back resulted in a “blowout” (over-exposure and saturation of the colors of the image) with an artsy-looking star-filled effect. Best seen in the full-sized original format. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

whale_molokini_kahoolawe

I caught this solitary whale in the glass-smooth waters of the channel between Maui and Kaho’olawe Island. It eventually cooperated with the photographer by doing a nice flukes-up dive (see the following sequence of images). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Whale - Molokini - Kaho'olawe-1

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

whale_molokini_kahoolawe-2

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

whale_molokini_kahoolawe-3

As the whale’s flukes begin to dip below the surface, the distinctive coloration pattern on the ventral aspect of the flukes is easily visible. This pattern is used by researchers to identify individual whales, since it is as unique to the individual as my fingerprints are to me. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

whale_molokini_kahoolawe-4

Flukes-up behavior indicates that the whale is preparing for a deeper dive… (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

whale_molokini_kahoolawe-5

...and there he goes! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Surprise! The whale in the previous shots was accompanied by some party-crashing Bottlenose dolphins. Most mature Humpback whales sort of tolerate the attentions of the extremely gregarious dolphins, but being solitary by nature, the humpies usually dump them at the earliest opportunity. This whale appeared to “ditch” the trailing dolphins by diving deep as soon as they switched their attentions to my boat and began swimming rapidly alongside and between Intrigue‘s twin hulls.

Distinctive dorsal "hook" of Bottlenose Dolphin.

Note the distinctive backward “hook” of the dorsal fin of this dolphin. It is unique to the Bottlenose species (Tursiops truncata). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

The following sequence of images are of single dolphin swimming to the surface alongside Intrigue.

Dolphin just under the surface

As the dolphin began to rise closer to the surface, all I saw was its highly refracted and broken-up shadow speeding along Intrigue‘s starboard hull. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Surfacing dolphin 2

When its head finally broke the surface, its streamlined body and blowhole (atop its head) were clearly visible. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Surfacing dolphin 3

The spray and large bubbles from its energetic exhalation are clearly visible emerging from the dolphin’s blowhole. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

surfacing dolphin-4

At the surface, the shape and coloration of the dolphin’s body are clearly visible. Note the very short length of the pectoral fin, proportionately very much smaller in relation to its body size when compared to that of a Humpback whale, which is 15 feet long, nearly a third of the whale’s entire body length! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

surfacing dolphin-5

Completing its quick breathing cycle, the dolphin prepares to again shoot below the surface. Keep in mind that I had my camera on “burst mode” and that this and the previous four photos were shot in a bit more than one second. These guys are VERY fast swimmers! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

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One Response to “Whalewatching 2016: Part I”

  1. Liz Croonquist 15 December 2015 at 1:21 PM #

    Looks like the Humpback whale season is well under way. Thanks for posting the great shots! I never noticed the white color on the underside of the fluke before. Do Orcas ever get over into your waters? I’ve started quite an interest in Orcas of late & the controversy over Sea World keeping them in captivity, something I’m now against.

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