Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Tail of Two Humpys - Part Two - A Whale of A Tail

Our close encounter with the rare Hawaiian monk seal in the crystal clear waters off of Olawalu Reef promised to be the highlight of the journey for many that day. The chance encounter with what later proved to be a "local celebrity" just returned from a 500 mile journey was an incredible opportunity to see a magnificent, free-ranging, rare pinniped up close and in its natural environment. I'd like to think the encounter speaks well for both the improving health of the Olawalu reef and the diligent conservation efforts of the Hawaiian people to save a native seal that was once on the verge of extinction.

Not long after we pulled anchor and sailed out of the Olawalu reef back toward port in Maalaea Bay, Captain Patrick of the Pride of Maui shouted a resounding "thar she blows". Late migrating humpbacks had been spotted in easy glassing range. Most of the whales had already begun the long, migratory journey back to Alaska a few weeks earlier.

A humpback whale calf prepares to dive, following its mother below. Humpback whales breed in these warm Pacific waters and gestate for the next 11 months. Pregnant whales are among the last to arrive to the warm summer breeding and birthing waters. This little calf was probably born late in the season and needed a few extra weeks to grow before making the 3500 mile, eight week journey back to the feeding grounds in Alaska. Calves nurse on their mother's milk for about six months.

These tennis ball-sized bumps on the whale's head and jaw are sensory nodules or tubercles. Each of these bumps contains a follicle sprouting a single inch-long gray hair containing both nerves and blood. Marine mammals evolved from five or six different groups of land mammals similar to pigs, horses and elephants and these follicles are a legacy of that evolutionary path.

By law, watercraft must stay at least 100 yards away from these acrobatic cetaceans.

Oops! On this particular day - no one told the whales the nautical rules of marine mammal observation - and for the second time in an hour a famous "humpy" decides its time to check things out.

Curious Humpy II swims right up to the Pride of Maui and seemingly snorfels (to borrow a Zick-phrase) with delight at his new found floating friend. But let's remember, in whaledom - where there is a baby there is a momma right there.

And here she comes, right under the boat. Its not completely unusual for a whale to swim under the boat - but after 23 years of whale watching in these Hawaiian waters - it was definitely my first time to observe this mammal so close. Unfortunately I had the wrong lens for an up-close and personal encounter and momma was too close for my 300mm lens.

What the proximity of whale and lens revealed are these curious white skin patches. White markings are often observed on the fluke, pectoral fins and underside of most humpbacks -- but unless this female was swimming upside down -- these are some curious markings indeed. I've googled my little fingers to exhaustion trying to make sense of this image. If the Science Chimp has a hunch or a wandering cetaceanologist happens this way -- I'd love to know. This might be the result of ectoparasites but the contrast of skin color doesn't seem to corroborate.

Humpy II, swimming in the shadow of his mother, gives us a clear underwater look. He wears refraction well. Check out that beautiful, haunting mammalian eye just to the left of his white pectoral fin.

Speaking of haunting - is there anything more mesmerizing and spine-tingle inducing then the song of the humpback whale? If you've never heard the sound before -- go here, to the Whalesong Project, turn up your volume and click on the picture there.

With a last breath, Humpy II bids us farewell and with one stroke of his mighty fluke...

he disappears into the deep blue Pacific. Aloha Humpy II - enjoy Alaska.
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