Whale Watching 2016: Part 13

23 Jun
boat and competition pod

The passengers of the SeaEscape III watch at a safe distance as two large Humpback males in a competition pod violently thrash each other at the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

23 February 2016 Cruise

Despite the Ocean Voyager’s initial encounter with a very energetic competition pod (see above photo), the most interesting part of this day’s cruise was the antics of one particularly active Humpback whale calf. But first things first…

The participants of the aforementioned competition pod became so violent and spread out at the surface, the SeaEscape III‘s pilot decided to steer clear of them lest their brawling smash into and swamp the tiny boat.

comp pod on the move

Three members of a fast-moving and violent competition pod. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

When they realized the female they were fighting over had left the scene, the males of the competition pod abruptly broke off their struggles with one another and gave chase to the fleeing object of their affections.

comp pod on the move-2

After a short break in the action, the competition pod quickly moved on. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Prior to boarding the Ocean Odyssey, I took the following shots of what I assumed was a solitary mature Humpback whale performing a long series of noisy and very spectacular fluke slaps in the near-shore shallows. It’s unusual for solitary whales to exhibit this behavior so close to shore (note the boulders of the harbor breakwater in the foreground), so I broke out the 300 mm zoom lens and began snapping away.

flukeslap from shore-1 300mm

Fluke-slapping whale taken from shore (without the 300 mm lens). (Click on the image to see a larger version.) 


flukeslap from shore-2 300mm

Fluke-slapping whale taken from shore (using the 300 mm lens). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

After blasting through about 30 shots and just as I was losing interest in this whale’s antics, a small whale’s head broke the surface a short distance to its left. So this was a mother-calf pair, and it appeared that Mom was teaching her offspring the fine art of fluke-slapping.

flukeslap from shore-4 300mm

Mother and calf (far left of photo) pair. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

About a half-hour into the cruise, we came upon another mother-and-calf pair making their way slowly out into the channel between Ma’alaea Bay and Molokini Island. Junior was performing a continuous series of splashy fluke slaps while Mom cruised slowly nearby, staying very close to her newborn the entire time we spent with this pair. Female Humpback whales with newborns in tow are very protective and stick close to their offspring throughout the first year of their lives. This mother-child relationship is the only close bond that the otherwise purposely solitary Humpbacks form during their lives. After it is weened (usually after the return to Hawaiian waters), the female abandons the yearling to fend for itself.

calf flukeslap mom & Molokini

Humpback calf doing fluke slaps as Mom cruises slowly alongside. Molokini Island looms in the hazy background. (Click on image to see a larger version.)


calf flukeslap and mom-4

Nice close-up shot of the calf’s tail stock (known as the “peduncle”) as it emerges from the water in preparation for yet another loud slap. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


calf flukeslap and mom-5

Close-up of the calf’s fluke slap; Mom’s dorsal fin is just visible to the right. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


calf flukeslap and mom-3

Oblivious to the presence of the Ocean Odyssey, the calf happily flails away at the surface while its ever-protective mother maneuvers to place herself between the boat and her youngster. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Just when I thought this playful newborn couldn’t get any cuter, it abruptly switched to performing a long series of awkward (but very energetic) partial breaches. During the first weeks of life, most newborn calves lack the strength to jump completely out of the water (a “full” breach). It is believed that the youngsters “practice” this behavior to strengthen their peduncle muscles in preparation for the long journey with Mom back to the Alaskan feeding grounds. To be honest, I believe they do it just because it’s so damned fun!

calf partial breach-2

Calf practicing breaching, but it manages to get only half-way out of the water. (Click on the image to seed a larger version.)


calf partial breach-4

Keep practicing, little guy! You’ll get better with time. (Click on image to see a larger version.)


mom with calf eye visible

Finally, the calf got bored with breaching and decided to do a little “spy hopping”, a reconnoitering behavior wherein the whale slowly rises to the surface in a near-vertical position so that its eyes barely break the surface; it then holds that position for several seconds, protruding one eye (the concentric fleshy wrinkles surrounding the eye are just visible above the mother’s massive back) as if “squinting” to get a better view of its surroundings. A whale’s visual acuity is quite good both at and below the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)


One Response to “Whale Watching 2016: Part 13”

  1. Liz Croonquist at 5:44 PM #

    So incredibly fascinating! Great shots and explanation of what was going on with this young calf and its mother. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 Aloha, Cuz!

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