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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.)

 

Whalewatching 2016: Part 12

25 Apr
Calf flukes-up dive.

Nice close-up shot of a Humpback calf’s flukes-up dive. Judging by the amount of time this calf stayed submerged after this dive, it’s probably several weeks old and ready to follow its mother to the Alaskan feeding grounds. 16 February 2016 (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

16 and 19 February 2016 Cruises

16 February Cruise

This day’s conditions were more typical of our February weather than those of the last few weeks: strong gusting southwesterly winds and heavy seas with whitecaps. This makes it difficult to spot whales; I had to be almost be on top of a whale in order to see it, let alone photograph it!

The following shots of a weeks-old calf were the most interesting and easiest to photograph.

This calf performed several energetic breaches

This calf performed several energetic breaches for about 15 minutes as its mother rested placidly at the surface nearby (light-blue patch of disturbed water at far left). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Young Humpback calves like this one usually aren't able to do full breaches (i.e., leap completely out of the water) because the peduncle muscles of the tail stock are not yet strong enough.

Young Humpback calves like this one usually aren’t able to do full breaches (i.e., leap completely out of the water) because the peduncle muscles of the tail stock are not yet strong enough. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

The calf performs a very noisy reverse breach, landing on its back.

The calf performs a very noisy reverse breach, landing on its back. The windblown spray is a small mouthful of water being forcefully ejected from its mouth as it does a “jaw clap”, an aggressive behavior more often displayed by adult whales in competition pods. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

————————————————

19 February Cruise

Excellent weather: high winds the night before had cleaned out the vog haze, so visibility was great; moderate trade winds cooled what would have been a cloudless warm day; the surface, while not glass-smooth, was calm enough to spot blows and breaches miles distant.

A large male Humpback headed directly for the boat.

A large male Humpback headed directly for the boat does an impressive (and VERY intimidating) round-out dive at the last second. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Sailboat and whale.

The crew of this sailboat took advantage of the excellent surface conditions and their ideal position to observe at close range a mother and calf lazing at the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

There were a LOT of surface-active competition pods inside the bay; most pods had four or more participants. Almost immediately the captain of the Ocean Odyssey found one just outside the harbor breakwater.

comp pod action

The male participants in this competition pod really churned up the waters as they heaved about and shoved one another. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Head lunge looking head-on

A head lunge viewed head-on! the barnacles encrusting the chin plate of this large male Humpback are clearly visible as it lifts its massive head above the surface and slams it down hard with a loud splash. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

The male participants of this competition pod were displaying a lot of very aggressive behavior: head butting and head lunges, inflated head lunges, jaw-clapping and tail cocking.

inflated head lunge & jaw clap in comp pod

A male Humpback performs an aggressive inflated head lunge and caps it off with some jaw-clapping (note the parted lips of the whale on the right). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A member of the competition pods swims close enough to the boat its flukes brushed the hull.

A member of the competition pods swims close enough to the boat its flukes brushed the hull. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

flukes-up closeup

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

The members of one of the competition pods came so close (called “mobbing the boat”) that the exhalations of the competitors straining to keep up with the female and her primary escort were loud enough one could almost imagine they were on the boat itself.

One whale popped up next to the boat just below where I was standing on the bridge; it happened so fast and at such close range (less than 2 meters) that I had no time to dial back the focus on my lens, but did manage after a second or so to refocus and catch the entirety of whale’s body in my viewfinder.

surprise! mugging the boat

This member of the competition pod very suddenly popped up on the starboard side of the boat after swimming between the twin hulls of the Ocean Odyssey. It was close enough I could hear its labored exhalation as it swam by, almost close enough to reach out and touch! (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Mobbing the boat.

I was just able to re-focus my lens to catch the full length of this whale as it emerged after swimming under the boat. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Pectoral fins' wingspan indicated with arrows

As this whale swims away from the boat, its two pectoral fins (the tips indicated by yellow arrows) are stretched out fully as it pulls a forward stroke. Each fin (the turquoise-blue patches visible just below the surface) is about 15 feet long, so its total “wing span” (about forty feet for this individual) is almost as wide as the whale is long (more than 45 feet).

 

older calf breaching

A young adult whale (or perhaps an older calf) performs a half-breach,;the L-shaped groove of it closed lips is clearly visible. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A Humpback calf moves close to the boat

A Humpback calf moves close to the boat, perhaps a bit curious about the engine noise. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Although most of the body of a Humpback whale belonging to the north Pacific population is black, the ventral aspect (i.e., the bottom surface) of its flukes and pectoral fins display large patches of bright-white coloration. A treat for whale photographers is to capture these patches of color when displayed by the whale near the surface, where they appear as bright turquoise-blue flashes.

The turquoise "wow factor".

The turquoise “wow factor”. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A mature adult Humpback displays a bit of "turquoise fin flash" as it surfaces and blows.

A mature adult Humpback displays a bit of “turquoise fin flash” as it surfaces and blows. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Whalewatching 2016: Part 11

13 Apr
Breaching male

A male Humpback whale accompanying a receptive female (her pectoral fin is visible just in front of him) breaches near his companion. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

12 February Cruise

If you follow this blog, you might have noticed that I often include a couple of photographs of my fellow whale watchers (see the 3 February cruise’s blog post). Sometimes the antics of humans interacting with whales can be just as interesting as those of the whales.

canoe and whale off beach

A lone canoeist observes at close range a Humpback logging quietly at the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Whoa!!! Don't show this one to the kids!

A raft-full of Mad Snappers (Touristicus flagrante) pursuing their favorite prey. Note the presence of the extremely rare Yellow-Shirted Butt Scratcher (Itchius persisticus) seductively perched on the port-side pontoon. (To satisfy your own prurient interest, click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Okay, back to the whales…

A solitary whale intercepts my boat then performs a roundout at close range.

A solitary whale intercepts my boat then performs a roundout at close range. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A solitary whale does a head lunge as it surfaces just offshore from Kalepolopo Beach

A solitary whale does a head lunge as it surfaces just offshore from Kalepolopo Beach (my neighborhood). (Click on the image to see a larger version.) At first I wasn’t sure why this whale was behaving aggressively as there seemed to be no other whales nearby…

 

suddenly several other whales surfaced around him

…but suddenly several other whales surfaced around him, followed by a volley of bubble-blowing, behavior intended to disorient and intimidate other members of a competition pod. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A closeup shot of the recipient of bubble-blowing

A closeup shot of the recipient of bubble-blowing by another member (submerged) of the competition pod. In their Alaskan feeding grounds, Humpback whales employ a similar tactic (known as a “bubble-screen”) to confuse and corral their prey. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

This whale is being subjected to bubble-screen attacks from both sides.

This whale is being subjected to bubble-screen attacks from both sides. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

During the intense activity of a surface-active competition pod, the whales' exertions cause them to exhale more often and more vigorously.

During the intense activity of a surface-active competition pod, the whales’ exertions cause them to exhale more often and more vigorously. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Competition pod action off Maalaea

We followed this competition pod for about a half hour as it shifted from the mouth of Ma’alaea Bay back into the shallower waters near the shoreline. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

One of the members of the competition suddenly performs a violent flukes slash, a behavior that is indicative of extreme annoyance or aggression.

One of the members of the competition suddenly performs a violent flukes slash, a behavior that is indicative of extreme agitation or aggression. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

One of the larger whales of the competition pod (possibly the female) veers toward my boat

One of the larger whales of the competition pod (possibly the female) veers toward my boat; her large pectoral fins (the elongated blue-white patches visible to either side of the body) spread out full to either side of her massive body. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

We finally left the competition pod to begin the long run back to Ma’alaea Harbor, during which we passed several mother-and-calf pairs engaged in more placid activity.

A calf (probably several weeks old, judging by its size) performed a graceful flukes-up dive as the boat passed.

A calf (probably several weeks old, judging by its size) performed a graceful flukes-up dive as the boat passed. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

One of a pair of whales exhales a plume of steam (or "blow") as it glides along the surface at a leisurely pace.

One of a pair of whales exhales a plume of steam (or “blow”) as it glides along the surface at a leisurely pace. A normal blow may reach 15 to 20 feet into the air, easily visible several miles away. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Whalewatching 2016: Part 5

7 Feb

surprise breach - frame 2

16 January Cruise

There was a great deal of surface activity (typical for mid-January) during this morning’s cruise,   most of which consisted of quieter, less-interesting behaviors like blowing, resting at the surface, and male and female pairs aimlessly wandering about the bay. However, two individual whales did put on two separate performances for the passengers and crew of the Voyager.

Almost immediately after Voyager cleared the Ma’alaea Harbor breakwater, an immature adult Humpback unexpectedly breached just off the port bow (see the “Super-Breach Surprise in Ma’alaea Bay” blog post).

breach sequence-16Jan2016

The first indication that a whale was breaching less than 100 yards from Voyager was the collective shout of surprise of the passengers and crew. By the time I shot the first of my ten frames of this jump, the whale was almost halfway into its breach. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Every camera on board (including mine) had been trained on a lazy pair of whales “logging” about 200 yards off our 3 o’clock position when the whale jumped in front of the boat, but I was able to wheel around in time to catch the whale about half way through the arch of its trajectory. Fortunately the camera was set on “Burst” mode and all I had to do was pull a focus and blast away.

breach sequence - frame 2 -16Jan2016

At this point in the breach, the whale’s angle of trajectory is nearly flat and almost all of its 40,000 tons is out of the water. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

breach sequence - frame 3 - 16Jan2016

I really like this shot because I caught the whale just as its entire body broke the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

I got off 10 quick frames before the young acrobat executed an immense splashdown that filled most of my viewfinder’s field with an immense cloud of white froth and spray.

breach sequence - frame 5 - 16Jan2016

As the whale’s body slammed into the surface, it was completely enveloped in a white cloud of spray and froth half again as large as itself. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

After this unlooked-for spectacle, the next half hour of the cruise was a bit of a letdown. I spotted a four-whale competition pod more than a half-mile distant and was marginally successful pulling a good enough focus to get the following shot.

distant competition pod-16Jan2016

At more than a half-mile out, I had to do a good bit of Photoshop fiddling to pull this one out of the voggy haze. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A bit later, a solitary whale (perhaps a yearling newly weaned from its mother) made a brief appearance, coming to within 100 yards of the boat, pausing just long enough for me to get these two shots of its barnacle-encrusted flukes.

barnacles on flukes-16Jan2016

A small colony of barnacles clings precariously to the tip of a young adult whale’s left fluke. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

flukes up w/barnacles-16Jan2016

As this whale performed a “goodbye” flukes-up dive, the two colonies of barnacles on the tips of its flukes were visible, clearly hanging on for dear life. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

Just as Voyager’s captain began pulling away from this whale, thinking that the show was over, the whale resurfaced and shortly commenced one of the longest sessions of repetitive fluke-slapping I’ve ever seen. I shot more than 250 frames before I let off on the shutter release for fear of getting too many of the same shots. I’ve included a couple of examples (below) of this noisy 20-minute tirade.

fluke slap-16Jan2016

This whale continued its fluke-slapping behavior for nearly 20 minutes. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

fluke slap-16Jan2016

Showing off for the tourists: This young adult whale lifts a demure tip of the pectoral fin while slamming its flukes sharply on the surface. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

flukes slap-16Jan2016

Eventually, the prolonged fluke-slapping of this immature adult began to draw a crowd of onlookers. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

 

 

Whalewatching 2016: Part 3

18 Jan
peduncle throw 1 - 9 Jan 2016

Nice shot of a Humpback whale doing a “peduncle throw”. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

9 January 2016 Cruise

Today’s cruise was typical of the mixture of good luck and challenges typical of nature photography.

Although volcanic smog (called “vog” by locals) enveloped all of Ma’alaea Bay in a thick gray haze and plagued my shoot by scattering sunlight and making pulling a focus difficult, there were so many surface-active groups and individual whales the Voyager’s captain had a hard time deciding which ones were worth following.

Oddly enough, although the vog seemed to literally swallow colors, leaving everything to come out in shades of gray and black, the haze actually provided better contrast for photos.

This cruise featured lots off surface activity with a wide variety of behaviors, including breaching, prolonged episodes of flukes slapping, and spectacular peduncle throws.

breach 1 - 9 Jan 2016

A partial breach shot from almost a half-mile away. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

The five following images are a sequence of shots taken of a single breach by a whale more than a mile off.

far breach 1 - 9 Jan 2016

#1 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

far breach 2 - 9 Jan 2016

#2 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

far breach 3 - 9 Jan 2016

#3 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

far breach 4 - 9 Jan 2016

#4 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

far breach 5 - 9 Jan 2016

#5 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

comp pod & breach - 9 Jan 2016

A whale participating in a competition pod suddenly breaches mightily in the midst of the other whales. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

 

one mile out - 9 Jan 2016

This breaching whale was shot at the very limit of my 300 mm telephoto lens, probable more than a mile distant. Pu’u Olai crater is seen on the horizon.(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

The following photographs are shots of various whales displaying an aggressive behavior known as a “peduncle throw”. The whale’s caudal peduncle (the end-most portion of its body just before the tail) and flukes are thrown up and out of the water and quickly slammed down sideways on the surface (or another whale). This behavior is usually seen in energetic surface-active competition pods.

peduncle throw 4 - 9 Jan 2016

#1 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

peduncle throw 2 - 9 Jan 2016

#2 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

peduncle throw 6 - 9 Jan 2016

#3 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

peduncle throw 3 - 9 Jan 2016

#4 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

peduncle throw 5 - 9 Jan 2016

#5 –> Click on the image to view a larger version.

 

The following photographs show several whales displaying the behavior known as fluke slaps. The whale’s caudal peduncle and flukes are repeatedly slammed downward on the surface, producing an explosion of water and sound.

flukes slap 2 - 9 Jan 2016

#1 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

flukes - 16 Jan 2016

#2 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

flukes slap

#3 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

The two following pics show the size comparison of a whale to an inflatable raft carrying more than a dozen passengers.

whale and raft 2 - 9Jan2016

#1 –> Click on the image to view a larger version.

 

whale and raft - 9Jan2016

#2 –> Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

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

26 DECEMBER

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!

27 DECEMBER

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”.

3 JANUARY

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.

6 JANUARY

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.

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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