Sharing Moments With Other Intelligent Beings

March 06, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Seeing whales in nature is a moving and unforgettable experience. Like seeing many wildlife, seeing whales in nature is a reminder of how diverse and extraordinary life on Earth is and our place within it. The anticipation of spotting a whale and the thrill of finally seeing one in the wild is an exhilarating experience that stays with you long after the encounter ends. Their immense presence commands respect and admiration. During my recent trip to Maui, Hawaii I was graced by several incredible humpback whale encounters. The story of humpbacks is better today than it once was. Once exploited by humans to near extinction, the 1986 ban on commercial whaling was a landmark decision that helped protect these majestic beings from complete slaughter. Though some countries still actively hunt and consume whales, since the moratorium, whale populations have shown remarkable signs of recovery. With the end of hunting pressure, many species rebounded. This resurgence is a testament to the effectiveness of conservation measures and the resilience of whale populations when given the chance to thrive.



Numerous conservation initiatives have been implemented to protect whales and their habitats worldwide. These efforts include establishing marine protected areas, implementing regulations to prevent collisions with vessels, advocating for sustainable fishing practices that minimize bycatch, and public awareness education.


While I was in Maui, I whale-watched and photographed in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created to offer protection for whales while in their preferred habitats, which are the relatively shallow waters less than about 600 feet deep that are found around the islands. These areas include Penguin Bank, the Maui Nui region (Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i, and Kaho‘olawe), Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, Hawai‘i Island, and O‘ahu. Other protected underwater species also inhabit the waters around the Hawaiian Islands, including several species of dolphin and five species of marine turtles: the green sea turtle, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley. Only the endangered hawksbill turtle and the threatened green sea turtle are commonly found in Hawaiian waters. 


In the United States, the Hawaiian Islands are the principal winter breeding grounds for the North Pacific humpback whale population. Each winter and spring approximately half of the north Pacific humpback whales, representing thousands of animals, visit the waters around the Hawaiian Islands, including sanctuary waters. Here they breed, give birth, and nurse their young. During one of my whale-watching encounters a mother and her calf approached the boat. This happened in a matter of seconds and the boat was buzzing with activity over the sight. I managed to only photograph a portion of the calf's head and tail as it was (quickly!) coming and (quickly) going! 


It was thought this was a weeks-old calf. Those bumps on its head are called tubercles. It's believed they help humpbacks detect vibrations in water which may help them feed on certain fish; others believe it helps reduce drag when whales are swimming and surfacing. In any event, those bumps exist for a purpose. At birth, humpback whales are "only" 12-14 feet long, and weigh "just" 1 to 1.5 tons. Everyday during the first six months of a humpback calf's life they grow around an inch and gain around 100 lbs. The reason for such an enormous growth spurt is the calf feeds only on its mother's milk (about 100 gallons a day) which is a super-concentrated, nutrient and fat-rich product.


Reliably predicting when or where you might see a humpback whale come to the surface, raise a fin or tail out of the water, or perform the most spectacular behavior -- breach out of the water --- is a bit of art and science. If you're on a boat and whale-watching, the challenges for photography increase because everything's always moving -- you, the water, the boat, your camera, the light, and the whales. It can also be difficult, if not impossible, to bring your highest quality camera equipment (i.e., biggest lens) on a whale-watching boat. When you're photographing whales by boat, pack your patience, understanding, and your skills in using your smaller telephoto lens. Fortunately, I was able to do some whale-watching from the lanai (porch or balcony in Hawaiian) of the property I stayed at on Maui. For this land-based whale watching I was able to use my biggest lens (1,000mm) and capture some of the incredible whale activity in the Pacific waters off in the distance. 


I had truly incredible humpback whale encounters while spending time on Maui and the waters of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In addition, I was able to share my photographs with Happywhale. As a result, I contributed to the science and knowledge about 7 humpback whales. Happywhale is a citizen science platform that plays a pivotal role in monitoring whale populations and migration patterns. Happywhale allows individuals to report whale sightings and contribute to a global database, providing researchers with insights into whale behavior and distribution. Using artificial-intelligence-based automated image recognition Happywhale attempts to identify whale flukes (tails) from voluntarily uploaded photos and distinguish the whales among over 43,000 individuals known globally. Happywhale notifies you of what they find.  Below I provided the results of what I learned about the whale images I provided to Happywhale:

Happywhale DigestHappywhale Digest

Happywhale sounds cute, and it's an important component of conservation and the science behind saving and protecting whales from human exploitation. Here's a few of their recent highlights: 


It's organizations like Happywhale that I love to support, so much so that I became a patron (financial supporter). I named one of the whales that I photographed and that was also in the Happywhale database. I named the whale Nani, which means beautiful in the Hawaiian language. Nani was first spotted in 2005.  I thought it was special that she was still alive when I spotted and photographed her 19 years later in 2024.


Happy whales to you!


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