Whalewatching 2016: Part 2

18 Jan
flukes up high wind 12-26

The wind-driven whitecaps made it difficult to tell in which direction these two whales were headed. Turns out they were headed directly for the boat. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

26 December (2015) through 6 January Cruises


A moderately strong Kona storm blew in early this morning, bringing with it winds blowing from the south-southwest, heavy seas (6-8 foot wind-driven lines) and strong shore-ward winds that blew throughout the day, growing heavier and lighter alternately during the cruise. This made for very difficult conditions aboard the boat; just holding onto the taffrails and standing on the pitching deck for two long hours wore me out.

head lunge close-up-12:26

If this whale hadn’t “blown” as he performed his head lunge, I wouldn’t have known he was even there! Today you couldn’t tell a whale from a whitecap, the froth was so strong. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

We encountered at least three seemingly energetic competition pods, but they were keeping a low profile, staying down for long periods and only coming to the surface to blow and dive back down again quickly. Even the few flukes-up dives I captured were subdued and lacking in energy. All the action was taking place at depth.

Almost all my shots were of uninteresting surface behavior like blows and all-too-brief head lunges.

head lunge high wind-12-26

This wide-angle shot gives you a vivid impression of the surface conditions. Can you spot the whale in this photo? (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

The following pics show how difficult it is to spot whales at the surface during high winds and choppy seas.

blow-high wind & heavy seas

The only way to spot whales in rough seas is when they blow at the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


comp pod-high wind & heavy seas

It took me awhile to figure out that this was a photo of a surface-active competition pod. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


in close-high winds & heavy seas

The boat was pitching so violently I almost missed taking this shot of a large whale headed right for the boat! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


flukes up 3-high wind & heavy seas-12-26

This lone pair of flukes was the only visual relief from the blue and white vastness of Ma’alaea Bay. Oh… and YES, sometimes the water is that blue; I didn’t P-Shop this image. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

I was so exhausted from the cruise that when I got back to the house I just tossed aside the camera bag and crashed on the couch for two hours, too sore and tired to do anything but sleep. All in all, a pretty fruitless day of photographing, but a great boat ride, nonetheless!


white flukes up-27 Dec

This whale’s flukes were unusual in that its ventral coloration pattern was almost all white. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

What a difference a day makes… especially when there’s no wind and waves to deal with! The quality of my shots improved immeasurably since I didn’t have to contend with being bounced around the deck in high seas. The camera lens’ auto-focus has plenty of time to capture the center of a given shot when the photographer’s platform (i.e., the deck of the Odyssey) is steady.

We encountered what APPEARED to be three small competition pods, but since there was so little surface activity in them, it was often difficult to tell what I was looking at: two whales… or three… or four? Often all I was able to capture at the surface was a female and her primary escort, although that escort was blowing bubbles, doing head lunges, and possibly chasing off other (unseen) competitors.

Female with escort-27 Dec

A female Humpback whale with her anxiously expectant male escort in attendance. (Click on image to see a larger version.)

It’s the end of December and I haven’t seen newborns or yearlings yet! Of course I have nothing to compare that situation to as I usually start cursing in January instead of early December as i did this year. However, the theory making the rounds of the whale-science community is that the warmer water temperature of the northern Pacific ocean associated with this year’s strong El Niño phenomenon is affecting the birthing cycles of Humpback females.

rainbow effect-27 Dec

Though so dramatic in this case, I like the “rainbow effect” caused by sunlight being refracted by the water vapor exiting the whale’s blowhole. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


flukes up with scenery-27 Dec

A flukes-up dive with some scenery adding a bit of interest (… yawn). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


shooting into the sun-27 Dec

I got so bored of flukes-up dives that I got a little “creative” and shot this one directly into the sun. It’s a nice enough star effect, I guess. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

At the end of the day, I would have to say this cruise was less than satisfactory because most of my shots were of flukes-up dives, meaning all I shot were whales’ “butts”.


energetic flukes-up dive-3 Jan

I really like the rows of glass-like bubbles that formed at the trailing edge of this whale’s flukes as it gave one last energetic kick before submerging. I’ve not seen anything like this effect in the several hundred flukes-up dives I’ve photographed. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Although it was a beautiful day with perfect surface conditions and nearly clear skies, this cruise turned out to be the most disappointing of the season.

far-off breach-3 Jan

Fortunately, the air was crystal-clear when I took this shot of a nice breach about a mile off. Go to 9 January’s pics to see the effect of a bad “vog” day on long-distance shots. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


flukes-up dive with escort-3 Jan

With the sun in front of her, a female Humpback (with her male escort to her right) performs a photogenic flukes-up dive. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


Molokini and whale-3 Jan

Shooting into the sun, I managed to get a nice profile shot of a whale blowing with Molokini crater on the horizon. (Click on the image to see a larger version.


cruising close to the boat-6 Jan

One of the members of a small 3-whale competition pod cruises close to the Voyager as its companions “mug” the boat. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

First “Maui Mugging” of the season: all of these pix were shots of a small three-whale competition pod that mobbed the boat, moving to within 100 yards. When that happens, the boat’s captain is obliged (by law, since we’re in a national animal sanctuary) to place his engine in neutral and cease all forward progress until the whales leave the 100-yard exclusion zone. Of course, whales don’t read rule books, and so they’re free to “mug” a boat whenever it suits them.

flukes-up close-up-best-6 Jan

This close-up of the far end of a whale’s tail-stock has a story to tell: The three lonely barnacles on the trailing edge of its left fluke and its relatively small size indicate that it’s probably a yearling come down to Maui for the winter, where its erstwhile mom cut it loose to fend for itself. Note the protruding crests of the vertebral bones, indicating it lost some body mass on the long trip south from its Alaskan feeding grounds. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Unfortunately, some of the passengers on this cruise forgot their whale-watching etiquette when the competition pod came alongside the boat. I left some passenger heads in the following shot because the ideal angle of the sun, the mist from the whales’ blows, and the boat’s position all produced a nice refraction effect, or “rainbow”.

small comp pod with rainbow-6 Jan

A whale’s blow is just like a human swimmer clearing his “blow holes” after a deep dive. The difference is that it looks pretty when they blow their noses! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Captain Gabe had to put the boat’s engine in neutral and drift for a good 20 minutes as the whales milled around us, diving and racing after one another, often coming within just a few meters of the Voyagers’ twin hulls.

Although I didn’t keep many of the 400-plus shots I took, the keepers more than made up for the previous cruises’ mediocre shots.

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