Tag Archives: Humpback Whales

Upolu

I call this spot Fran Point since that’s the name on the cross in this photo. Here, a rainbow arches over the coast and the surf rolling in.
An endangered Hawaiian monk seal rests in a tide pool along the rocky shoreline.
A monarch butterfly on a tasselflower.

This week’s Sunday Stills challenge theme is ‘Favorite Place.’ See more offerings here.

I could think of several places on the Big Island that would fall into the category of favorite place. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Palila Forest Discovery Trail, the ocean – all these are places I return to. But the coast at Upolu is where I go for exercise and to enjoy the ever-changing scene there.

This stretch of coast features scenic high cliffs interspersed with lower areas where tide pools nestle among the rocks. Often, there’s a great view of Maui across the ʻAlenuihāhā Channel. In those waters I look for humpback whales, turtles, monk seals, and once, even a passing shark. Up in the air I might see anything from plovers to noddys to great frigatebirds. On land, there’s an assortment of birds, bugs and butterflies to be seen, as well as horses, cattle, and the occasional wild pig.

Sometimes, it’s hot and dry, but usually there’s a decent breeze, occasionally strong enough to make me lean into it while blown dirt sandblasts my legs. Sometimes, I get caught in the rain, but when I do, I’m usually dry again by the time I get back to my truck.

I’ve lived here seven years now and I never tire of going down there and looping around the fenced airstrip, wondering what I’ll see.

A bristle-thighed curlew strides along the edge of the airstrip at Upolu.
A humpback whale cruises no more than 50 feet offshore. This was one of a pair that I saw just this past week. I suspect they were a male and female, with the male interested in mating before heading north to Alaska. Not only was this as close as I’ve seen whales, but it was the first time, from land, that I’ve heard a whale do anything other than blowing. In this case, the pursuing whale made a deep, two-toned mooing sound as it went by.

Going up, going down

Humpback whales have returned to Hawaiian waters. They spend the summers in Alaska and then come down here to have their calves and to breed. This year, the first whales were spotted early – at the end of October. I saw a couple in early November, but then nothing for a month.

This, of course, doesn’t mean they weren’t around, just that I didn’t see any. But in the second half of December I started seeing more of them and more activity, and now I see one or two most days.

On this day, I saw five whales. Three were just blowing, but two cruised along the coast, in the same direction I was walking, and were quite active. In the photo above, one of the whales rises out of the water – not a full breach, but what might be called a head slap as it bangs back down. At left, the whale dives. When an adult whale dives it can stay underwater for 20 minutes or more.

Commerson’s frogfish

This little lemon-yellow beauty is a juvenile Commerson’s frogfish. Frogfish are rarely seen by snorkelers because they blend in so beautifully. Typically they look like bits of the reef but some, such as this one, mimic sponges and so are more easily seen.

Frogfish are anglers. They sit motionless on the bottom. When potential prey approaches, they flick their first dorsal fin forward. This is tipped with a fleshy lure that hangs over its mouth. If the prey takes the bait, the frogfish strikes. It can expand its mouth to swallow quite large fish and it strikes with such speed that other fish in the vicinity are generally unaware what’s happened, thus allowing the frogfish to remain in place and continue fishing.

In this photo, the frogfish’s eyes and mouth are visible, as are its pectoral fins that are adapted to help it hang on to the reef and to move about.

This frogfish was spotted by my wife and we watched it for a while before we were interrupted by three whales breaching. They were half-a-mile or more away, but this was the first time I’d seen whale activity from the water and it was pretty impressive, if almost impossible to photograph.

When the whales settled down, I dipped my head below the water to try and locate the frogfish again and the first thing I saw was a white-tipped reef shark cruising by. I suspect it had been attracted by my feeble attempts to dive and photograph the frogfish, probably thinking there was some easy prey to be had. It quickly disappeared again, but it made for a memorable few minutes.

Humpback whale tail slaps

Humpback tail slap

Humpback whale tail slapThis week’s Friendly Friday challenge theme is ‘Climate Change.’ (See more responses here.) Living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes climate change a relevant topic. Our weather is affected, our wildlife is impacted, our food supplies could be disrupted. But I’ve chosen to picture something obvious and current – humpback whales.

I posted (here) about the decline in the number of humpbacks coming to Hawaii to breed and calve, an estimated drop of 50- to 80-percent over the last four years. I expect that decline to extend to this year’s numbers.

I’ve lived here for seven whale seasons and the drop in numbers from the first couple of years to now is visible and obvious. January through March are supposed to be the height of whale season, but the number of whales here is dropping. I spend a lot of time in the island’s prime whale viewing area and already they are few and far between.

Each year, NOAA conducts a whale count on the last Saturday of January, February, and March. Last year, at the count site I attended, we saw no whales in March – none. This was unprecedented. I wouldn’t be surprised if this month’s count repeats that result and I certainly don’t expect them to see more than two or three whales.

A conference in Honolulu last fall attributed the drop in the number of whales visiting Hawaii to warmer waters in Alaska affecting the whales’ food supply. Those waters are warming because of climate change. So what will happen? Well, my belief is that people make money off activities that cause climate change and the best/only way to change that is to make those activities less profitable or to make it more profitable to be engaged in activities that combat climate change. An alternative is to have people become less geared to making obscene amounts of money, but that, I think, is wishful thinking indeed.

In these photos, a humpback whale slaps its tail, one of several common humpback activities that are monitored during the NOAA whale counts.

Humpback tail slaps

Humpback whales

humpback mother and calf

humpback breachingWhale season is underway again. The first Humpbacks were seen back in November, but it wasn’t until late December that I started to see them regularly, if not exactly often. Also, the whales that I did see were either not terribly active or too far away to get decent photos.

A couple of days ago, out on my regular walk along the coast, I thought I was out of luck again when I came across this mother and calf. I saw the mother make only one breach, but the calf breached multiple times as they cruised long the coast.

Above, the mother cruises alongside while her calf raises itself out of the water one more time. To the right and below, the calf breaches.

Humpback whales make the long journey from their feeding grounds in Alaska to breed and to calve in Hawaii. But researchers are concerned that the number of whales sighted in Hawaiian waters has declined between 50 and 80 percent over the last four years. A recent conference in Honolulu attributed that decline to warmer waters in Alaska affecting the whales’ food supply. However, it’s not clear exactly how widespread that disruption is, how it affects humpback behavior, and whether overall humpback numbers are affected. But it is clear, at least to this casual observer, that the numbers aren’t bouncing back this year.

humpback calf breaches

A humpback whales breaches off the Big Island

Humpback whale breach

A humpback whales breaches off the Big Island
I could wish for the humpback whales to be around all year, but perhaps that would not be for the best. Aside from the minor detail that they would starve to death here, there’s also so the chance of becoming jaded. As it is, seeing a humpback breaching – raising its huge bulk out of the water and then crashing back in – continues to be a thrill every time I see it.

A humback whale dives off the Big Island.

Humpback whale dive

A humback whale dives off the Big Island.
It’s not this time of year without the return of humpback whales to the waters around the Big Island. The whales return to give birth and to mate. It’s still early in the season, but the first returnees appeared off Kailua Kona in late October. In November, I saw four whales off North Kohala. The numbers should start to increase this month while the peak numbers tend to be January through March.

For more information about humpback whales, I recommend Jim Darling’s book, Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries or go to whaletrust.org or hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/welcome.html.