General Non-Fiction posted March 18, 2013

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that moment of connection ...

The Hawaiian Humpback Whale

by visionary1234

In Hawaii, we don’t have traditional “seasons” - no spectacular displays of fall leaves, no winter snows, no new spring bulbs.  Here, our seasonal differences are simple.

Either it’s raining, and the humpback whales have arrived; or it isn’t, and they haven’t. (The former is our “winter”.  The latter is our whatever-the-rest-of-the-year is called – let’s call it “summer”).
The Humpback whale, (Megaptera novaeangliae) is so called for its distinctive shape and knobbly head – and “humpback” also describes the motion it makes as it arches its back out of the water in preparation for a dive.

I have a sixteen-year-old son who is six feet tall.  Imagine nine or ten of him, lying down, head to toe, and that’s approximately how long an adult humpback grows – about the size of a school bus, but a lot heavier at approximately 30 – 50 tons. Just the four-chambered heart alone of one of these creatures weighs as much as three of my sons – that’s 195 pounds each.

These whales spend most of the year up around the Arctic Circle, feeding on krill, plankton and small fish, preparing for the long migration south to Hawaii where they come to give birth to their young in the warm tropical waters. Then they mate and swim all the way back again. During migration, the whales can cover over 1000 miles a month.

They feed only in the long polar summers, eating an average of 4400 – 5500 pounds of krill, plankton and small schooling fish per day. 

During the winter, when they’re in Hawaii's warm waters, they fast and live off their accumulated body fat.

The humpback is a species of ‘baleen’ whale – which means they are “filter” feeders. The baleen system works when a whale opens its mouth underwater and water pours in. The whale then pushes the water out, leaving the food behind.  Baleen has been described as “bristles” and is made of keratin, the same material found in human fingernails or hair.  

Just visualize my sixteen-year-old opening the double doors of my large refrigerator and inhaling everything in sight, and you’ll get the idea of the feeding capacity of these gentle giants.

All that sounds dryly academic.  It’s really when you go out and meet these giant creatures face-to-face that you realize the full impact of their size. 

In Hawaii, it’s against the law for a tourist boat to approach a whale or to come closer than one hundred yards.  So the boats steam out of Lahaina or Ma’alaea Harbor into the channel between the two islands of Maui and Moloka’i, cut their engines, and just drift.  Sit back, enjoy Maui's warm winter sun on your face (you'll definitely need sun cream) and, if you’re lucky, the whales will come to you.

There’s always an air of excitement on the boats as the tourists, dressed gaily in light-hearted colors and sun-hats, wait expectantly.  Whoosh! You’ll hear the giant expulsion of air through the whale’s two blow-holes. 

Often a whale will breach quite close, jumping out of the water completely, sometimes showing its tail, or “fluke”, and then rolling over on one side, slapping a pectoral fin. These are mating behaviors.

You might see a mother with a new baby, or “calf”.  The newborn is born underwater and instinctively swims to the surface within ten seconds for its first breath.  Within 30 minutes of its birth, the baby can swim.  The newborn calf is about 14 feet long, weighs approximately 2.5 tons, and drinks 100 pounds of milk each day.  Mother and calf typically stay together for about twelve months and are strongly bonded.

Whales can usually be found swimming in groups, or “pods.”

If you were to dive overboard right now, and simply hang, suspended, with your head underwater, you would probably hear the whales “singing”.  The males produce a complex song that sometimes lasts up to 20 minutes and they repeat these beautiful, somewhat eerie songs for hours at a time.  No one knows what the purpose of the songs is, though it’s been suggested that they may have a role in mating.

Onlookers become kids again as these pods come close to the boats, as many do.  First, of course, there’s the excitement, then the “oohs” and “aahs” and squeals of delight at the whales’ acrobatics.  Then, if you’re lucky, the whales will come close to the boat and just lie still, sunning themselves.  You may even see a giant eye.

That’s the special moment – when you “connect” with this intriguing and intelligent species.

That’s when the mood in the boat changes.  People become quiet, and simply watch, in wonder.  These creatures, up close and personal, are indeed awe-inspiring.

As one sits in the aquamarine waters of Hawaii observing these magnificent creatures, it’s important to remember that they were once hunted to the brink of extinction – their population falling by an estimated 90% before a moratorium was declared in 1966.
Despite the fact that whales are still on the endangered species list, both Norway and Japan refused to sign the moratorium and these countries still hunt whales.  U.S. Navy sonar testing and explosive devices have also been shown to harm whales and other cetaceans off Hawaiian and U.S. waters.

Let us be stewards of the sea.  These creatures need to be defended - if not by us, then by whom?
Numbers are recovering, but currently it is believed that 30,000 to 40,000 humpback whales are left, or about 30 percent of their original population.

The Whale Foundation in Hawaii runs many of the whale-watch tourist boats, and the Foundation does a good job of educating the public.  Sightseers disembark after one of these tours with a new awareness of their responsibilities for protecting our oceans. 

But the real education occurs in that simple moment of connection - where an ordinary human being has looked into the eye of one of these huge animals, and experienced reverence for all life on this planet. 


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry


It's only when you come face to face with these wonderful creatures that you realize our unique connection with all living things on this beautiful and precious planet we live on.

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