The Humpback Whale is a quintessential icon of ‘Winter in Paradise.’
As we are now nearing the end of “Whale Season” in Hawai’i, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the season, and what the Whales mean to us all. Daily now, we are watching as the whales depart; mamas with calves, escorts with pregnant females. Leaving Hawai’i, heading back to Northern waters, ready to feast after a season of starvation.
At the beginning of each winter, as the Humpbacks trickle in during December, filling in the warm waters between Maui, Moloka’i and Lana’i, we know ‘winter’ in Hawai’i has truly arrived.
Without the whales, how are we to note the changing of the seasons? A shift in the winds, so slight only a sailor might notice; the swells from the North gaining speed and wave height, only something the surfers among us might notice; the collection of rain clouds on the West Maui Mountains, a little denser; the West Maui’s themselves, a little greener; the days, an hour shorter than summer says. What else signals winter in Hawai’i?
It has always been the Humpback Whales’ return to our islands, from the distant North, ā ‘ākau.
They arrived rather ‘behind schedule’ this year, some time in late December. There was a bit of a huff about it, some media sites reporting the whales as “missing.” But they arrived, as they always do.
We may have been a little impatient, expectantly tapping our toes, arms outstretched and waiting for our beloved Humpbacks. As researcher Ed Lyman said on the subject of their late arrival: “Unlike humans, whales don’t have calendars, and there are a lot of variables that could cause a later or earlier arrival from year to year.”
3,000 miles. Can you imagine swimming such a distance? and, on a tight schedule? All the while practically fasting? Well.
While the whales are in the warm waters of Hawai’i they have 1 of 3 important tasks:
- Already pregnant females give birth to their calves, nurse them, nurture them, and prepare them for the 3,000-mile swim back to the Northern waters. These mama whales nurse their 10-15′ babies with a 45%-60% fat ‘milk’ (which is the consistency of yogurt!), all the while, they themselves are fasting. And will continue to do so until after the journey back to their Northern feeding grounds, where they will FEAST.
- All males have the task of fighting off other males in favor for a female mate, which they will then impregnate. Some males become ‘escorts’ to their seasonal wives, remaining protectively at their sides during their stay in Hawai’i, and making the journey North to South, South to North with them during their 10-12 month pregnancy.
- “Single” females, while vacationing in Hawai’i, watch while pods of male whales fight for their affection, and once one has singled himself out and ‘won her over,’ she’ll become pregnant with his calf. Still fasting, she will return North with her pregnant belly. With a 10-12 month gestation, those same females will return, belly bursting, to give birth the following year in Hawai’i.
Summarized and simplified here of course, so is the life of the Koholā while in Hawai’i.
Just as observers and scientists noted the late arrival of the Humpbacks this season, so too are there observations that the whales are leaving a tad earlier than normal this spring. Perhaps for the same reasons: the Humpback Whale’s internal calendar dates are a bit more written-in-pencil than our inked-in calendars.
Megaptera Novaeangliae (the scientific name for the Humpback Whale): We adore you. Never stop returning to us!
On the brink of extinction only 25 years ago, when the whaling industry dropped the Humpback population to under 6,000 – 90% of the then Humpback population – the whales have made a heroic, if not sensitive, return. Now an estimated 80,000 Humpbacks swim the seas worldwide.
These magnificent mammals are not necessarily out of harms way, however. Mid-sea collisions with ships, tangled in industrial fishing equipment and noise pollution continue to trouble the Megaptera Novaeangliae. So we must continue to praise them and protect them.
A note about Gemini’s change of schedule: normally, Whale Season extends until April 15th. This year, however, we’ve decided to discontinue the Morning Whale Watch in early April. And by relabeling the Evening Whale Watch – for the next two weeks, we will refer to it as “The Afternoon Whale Sail” – we are no longer guaranteeing the spotting of whales, rather sailing around, fingers crossed for a chance run-in with these magnificent mammals.
It is an entirely different experience, summer sailing as opposed to winter whale watching. But I know some of the Gemini crew is very ready to start sailing again. And I know Gemini herself is the most eager of all; this boat loves to sail. So, shake out the main, unfurl the jib, let’s set sail into the sunset once more.
One by one, we wave goodbye to our wintering friends, wish them a safe huaka’i – voyage. A hui hou kakou, koholā. See you next winter, and we will continue to adore you, even if you are a little ‘behind schedule’ and make us wait for you, full of anticipation.
Hawaiian Glossary of Terms:
Ā – And
‘Ākau – North
A hui hou kakou – Until we meet again
Koholā – Humpback Whale