Sunday, November 25, 2001


Humpback whales are powerful, 40-ton mammals,
yet they move gracefully through Hawaii's
waters each year.

When the humpbacks come to Hawaii

Whale-watching ranks as
one of Maui's top activities
from December to April

Cruises, and how to choose

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Special to the Star-Bulletin

WE saw her "blow," first spotting the misty vapor plume that results when a whale exhales at the ocean's surface. Then we saw her body, a massive pewter wall rising slowly above the surface of the sea on the starboard side of the boat. The captain killed the engines. By law, we couldn't approach within 100 yards of her.

But the humpback came to us. She must have been curious because she swam gently around us, turning and rolling, at times coming so close I could see the barnacles on her belly. Incredible, amazing, spellbinding -- no word completely captures the majesty of that encounter. It remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

"There are so many reasons why humpback whales are fascinating," says Anne Rillero, director of marketing and public relations for the Pacific Whale Foundation, whose mission is to promote appreciation, understanding and protection of whales. "They weigh 40 to 45 tons at adulthood but move as gracefully as swans. Their tail muscles are so powerful, they can propel their entire bodies out of water with a just a few strokes of their tail flukes. They can find their way to Hawaii over thousands of miles. ... Clearly, they are intelligent animals. And they are mammals like us."

Each winter, between 3,500 and 4,500 humpbacks -- an endangered species -- migrate to Hawaii from Alaska waters to mate, give birth and raise their young. They congregate in the sheltered area between Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokai, where the sea depth averages 250 feet. Such shallow water is a good place for them to give birth and care for their calves because predators, including large sharks, are less likely to be found here. In addition, the four islands serve as a windbreak, keeping the waters in this area relatively calm.


Humpback facts

>> Speed of the air exhaled during a whale's blow: 300 mph
>> Weight of a humpback's tongue: 2 tons
>> Span of a humpback whale's tail fluke: 15 feet
>> Size of a newborn calf: 12 feet long and weighs 2 tons
>> Amount of milk consumed each day by a newborn calf: 100 to 130 gallons
>> Percentage of fat in whale milk: 40 to 50 percent
>> Number of years humpbacks live: 30 to 40

The seas off South Maui also are warm and clear, with temperatures averaging in the low 70s and visibility often at 75 to 100 feet. The warm water is ideal for the calves, which are born without much blubber. The visibility makes it easier for their mothers to see and respond to predators.

Humpbacks often can be spotted very close to Maui's shores. On a whale-watching cruise, you're likely to be rewarded with a sighting within 10 minutes of leaving the harbor. You also can watch whales from the beach or even from the car as you drive along Honoapiilani Highway between Maalaea and Lahaina.

"We have seen humpbacks in water that's less than 12 feet deep," says Greg Kaufman, president and founder of the Pacific Whale Foundation. "They can often be seen frolicking less than 100 yards from the shoreline, particularly in the Olowalu, McGregor Point and Kealia Pond shoreline areas. Once at Olowalu, I observed a pod of eight animals swim to within 50 yards of the shoreline."

Kaufman says the best way to spot humpbacks is to scan the horizon, looking for a blow and large splashes caused by activities such as breaching or tail slapping. Another indication is a boat that is sitting still for no apparent reason; there's likely to be a whale nearby.

"Keep in mind that the average 'down time' for a whale is seven to 15 minutes," Kaufman said. "If you see a whale dive, keep watching in that area, and you will likely see it again before 20 minutes are up."

It's no wonder that from December through April, whale watching ranks tops among Maui's activities. In Rillero's opinion, "The thrill of going on a whale watch is the pure wonder of encountering a wild and majestic animal many times larger than yourself. Yes, you can see whales on television, but when you encounter a real whale in its natural habitat, living wild and free, that's a moment you won't forget. To see the power of the whale as it breaches, to hear its haunting songs -- these are rare experiences that show you how amazing the natural world is."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a
free-lance writer based in Hawaii.


Whale-watching cruises

The following companies offer whale-watching cruises on Maui. Call them for tour schedules, prices (some offer kama'aina discounts) and other information.

West Maui, Kaanapali Beach


Trilogy IV661-4743

World Class667-7733

Zip-purr Charters667-2299

West Maui, Lahaina Harbor

America II667-2195

Ehukai and Kaulana871-1144


Maui Nui Explorer873-3475

Maui Princess667-6165

Paragon Sailing Charters244-2877

Ultimate Rafting667-5678

Whale II879-8811


West Maui, Mala Wharf

Capt. Steve's Rafting667-5565

Ocean Riders661-3586

South Maui, Maalaea Harbor

Blue Dolphin661-3333

Lahaina Princess667-6165

Maka Kai879-4485

Ocean Spirit879-8811

Pacific Whale879-8811

Prince Kuhio242-8777

Trilogy V661-4743

Wailea Kai879-4485

South Maui, Kihei Boat Ramp

Blue Water Rafting879-7238

How to choose your cruise

With so many options available, selecting a whale-watching cruise can be mind-boggling. These guidelines from the Pacific Whale Foundation can help you make a wise choice.

>> Experience of the tour operator. Check out the number of years the company has been in business and the number of passengers it has served.

>> Comfortable, modern boats. Consider the age, condition and stability of the boats; whether they have bathrooms and a shaded cabin; and if their design offers good viewing for all passengers. Avoid bumpy raft rides if you are pregnant or have back problems. If the vessel is equipped with hydrophones that enable you to listen to whale songs, all the better!

>> Knowledgeable, enthusiastic marine naturalists. Guides who are marine biology graduates and who are involved in whale research definitely enhance the quality of the tour.

>> Research and educational opportunities. Some tour operators offer on-board programs for kids. It's also fun to be on a cruise that allows you to assist with whale research.

>> Cruise benefits whales. Companies that recycle, work to reduce pollution, use alternative fuels and vessels that are designed to reduce noise and air pollution, or otherwise display concern and caring for the whale's environment earn high marks. Also look for companies that donate a portion of their proceeds to marine education, research and conservation.

You can receive a free guide, "Watching Hawaii's Humpback Whales," by sending a self-addressed, stamped (55 cents) envelope to the Pacific Whale Foundation, Free Whale Guide, 101 N. Kihei Rd., Kihei, HI 96753. In addition, PWF will be hosting a free Whale Information Station at McGregor Point Lookout, a prime whale-watching location on Honoapiilani Highway between Maalaea and Lahaina, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily between Saturday and May 15.

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