Migrating Naturalist: Whales—Worth The Wait

Today started out a little slow, as far as humpback research goes around Maui. Our first observation attempt seemed promising, as we approached a single whale performing a behaviour that many like to call “staging”. This consists of a series of very showy surface activities, like breaching, pec-slapping, and tail-lobbing. Many researchers believe that they do this to attract attention, as often it is seen from younger lone animals, such as yearlings that have recently been separated from their mothers. The unfortunate result of this is that when you approach a staging whale, it will often abruptly stop all these interesting behaviours, dive down, and disappear. Perhaps it figures it has company, and the job is done. Perhaps it is disappointed that the wrong species has shown up. Either way, our staging whale did precisely this, vanishing completely, and so the encounter was effectively ended before it even began.

For the rest of the morning we seemed to be plagued with multiple pairs equally spaced all around us, which meant that it was hard to keep track of one group for more than one surfacing.  This can often be a problem in Hawaii waters, due to a high density of humpbacks in a relatively small area. However, we were rewarded for our patience in the latter half of the day. We enjoyed the company of a singing male, and a few groups with adorable new (likely not more than 1 month old) calves. The best was saved for last, as our final encounter was with a large competitive group, performing a number of amazing surface antics.

Whale research often seems to consist of long periods of waiting, followed by short bouts of frantic activity, and then more waiting. Perhaps it is simply the price we pay for attempting to study a mammal which spends most of its life below the surface. However, those moments of incredible action certainly make all the waiting more than worthwhile.

My name is Diana, and for the past two years, I have been traveling between my naturalist position in Tofino with West Coast Aquatic Safaris, and my research intern position with the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. Throughout my second season with HWRF, I am writing regular blogs, describing my experiences on the water and here in Maui.

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