"" Writer's Wanderings: The Tale Tells All

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Tale Tells All

Here's another post from our trip to Maui in 2012. Great memories.

In Hawaii, it is high season in February for whales. Between December and the end of March, thousands of humpback whales make their way back to the place of their birth in the warm waters of the Hawaiian islands. It is not a mass migration but rather a coming and going not unlike a high tourist season when the area might welcome many tourists but not all at one time.

The humpbacks are coming from their home in Alaska. As one naturalist put it, Alaska is the kitchen and Hawaii is the bedroom/delivery room. The whales have spent the greater part of their year feeding in the nutrient rich waters of Alaska where they feed on krill, anchovies, sardines, and a variety of other schooling fish. Then they make the long trek south. Some will stop off in southern California at their breeding grounds. The rest will continue the trek to Hawaii.

Hopefully they have eaten well during their stay in Alaska because they will need all that energy for birthing and breeding neither of which is for the faint-hearted whale. But more of that for another day.

Much research has been done on this species that was almost extinct not long ago. Whaling took a toll on the humpback population. Now that they are no longer hunted and regulations have been put in place to protect their breeding grounds the population has increased 7% in about forty years. At any one time there could be about 3,000 cruising the waters of Hawaii and overall they estimate the Northern Pacific population to be near 20,000. But how do they know they aren't counting the same whale multiple times?

Observers noticed that the tails of whales are distinctive. They each have a pattern sort of like a fingerprint. Naturalists have been taking pictures and studying pictures to determine which whales are returning each year and how many there are. They have even tracked several through the recognition of their tails, or flukes as they are called, as they traveled between Alaska and Hawaii and noted the speed with which they made the trip. The fastest, we were told, was 30 days. Usually it is about six weeks.

The flukes will also tell the story of how much danger the whale has had to deal with. Some have rake marks on them from the teeth of orcas, their natural predator.
They might also have some marks from some of the battles the males have been in with each other over the attentions of a female. Sound familiar? We aren't so different, are we?

While the first sign of a whale is the blow or spout of water shot out when it surfaces, the last you will see of it for a while is the tail. While on the surface it may dive shallowly but when you see the fluke, you know that the whale is headed down for a deeper dive that can last anywhere from five minutes to up to an hour. But the whales are mammals and therefore air breathers. Their lungs are the size of a Volkswagon Beetle. Fill them up and that adult whale, the size of a school bus, is good to go deep.

A whale of a tale, isn't it!

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