Maui – a whale zoo


We get a weather window on January 22nd that will allow us to sail from Hilo to Maui.  We’ve waited a long time for this – we need to feel some sunshine. We haven’t seen the sun for almost three weeks now – since New Year’s it has rained the proverbial cats and dogs – Noah would have felt right at home.  The only good news is that Capri has had a very thorough washing down – which she needed.  To turn an old saying inside out – every silver lining has a cloud.  All the “stainless steel” is exactly that – it “stains less”.  We have rust everywhere – but it is from the screws that have not been polished correctly.  Below deck everything is damp, our clothes, bedding cushions etc. – we need the sun so everything can dry out.

We also haven’t had any sun so we are beginning to look like the tourists here – pale as death.  I’ve lost all the wonderful color I’d gotten in Polynesia.  Carsten is still brown (as usual  – YUK!).  The tourists cover their bodies in sunblocker and it shows – their arms and legs are almost transparent – actually, they look sick.

It is early morning as we hoist anchor and leave Radio Bay, exiting out into the expected 2 meter high swells and ten knots of wind from the Southeast.  Jubiii – we have it on a broad reach (behind).  We spent hours looking at the weather forecast and have about twelve hours to reach the infamous straits between Hawaii and Maui, before the arrival of 3-4 meter swells from the north – or right in our face.  We’re not surprised when a few minutes after leaving port we hear the Coast guard put out a small craft warning (that’s us) telling everyone to stay in the harbor.  They say that the swells on the eastern side of the islands, and especially at Maui can reach up to nine meters (30 feet for you non-metric types).  We’re calm about this because we expect to be in the lee of Maui by that time.

During the afternoon, the forecast proves correct as the wind dies and we fire up the engine, running at 2000 rpms to make sure we get in the lee of Maui on time.  Strange that the swells die down to almost nothing as they change direction.  By six p.m. we have reached the northernmost point on Hawaii and begin our crossing of the straits.  The straits are 40nm across and there are almost no swells – the sea is flat – we’ve obviously made it into lee in time – Yahoo!

Wonderful calm and comfortable sailing with a starry sky above us.  The only thing we have to concentrate on during this crossing are the three towboats that will end up coming at us during the night.  We are on the same, although opposite course since they are coming from Honolulu.  Our AIS shows us in each case that we will pass within only a few hundred meters of each other – much closer than we like.  I’m on watch and turn a bit to port and shortly thereafter, I can see the tow also turning to port so we miss each other by a comfortable margin.  The third boat, however, turns to starboard – following me.  What the hell is he up to?  He has to be able to see that according to the AIS we’ll pass each other at less than 100 yards.  I call him on the VHF and ask what his intentions are.  He claims that he can’t see us on the AIS nor on his radar – although he does say he might have seen our green starboard lantern.  We agree to pass red on red since he is going to Kona and not crossing the straits.  His comment: I’m not venturing out into the swells on the eastern side of Hawaii – I’ll stay in the lee of the island.  Typically, Carsten doesn’t meet any tows when he has the watch.

Our skipper is also smart, arranging the watches so I have the task of sailing Capri through the only three nm wide straits between Kaho’olawe (unpopulated Military Island) and Molokini atoll.  There are lots of reefs here and in the dark I can’t see Molokini, only some light on Kaho’olawe, leaving me to trust our new chartplotter completely.  Our pilot books say that you can easily spot whales in this area.  I can only hope that they don’t sleep so soundly that they can’t hear Capri’s engine approaching.  We pass through without any problems and continue towards Lahaina where we have reserved an anchor buoy.  We’re going to stay on a buoy this time because the books warn against trying to anchor here.  The holding is terrible since it is only a thin layer of sand on top of coral and lava rock.  It is five a.m. and it won’t get light until seven so I slow down so we don’t arrive too early.

Carsten takes over and when I’ve had about an hour and a half of sleep he wakes me by suddenly slowing down.  My first thought is:  are we there already?  A somewhat concentrated skipper is at the helm, staring towards bows as he says, There are a lot of whales here – there is one that just whipped his tail up less than 50 yards from us – look there is one lying on the surface!  I can’t believe my eyes- we can see lots of whales and even more whales spouting all around us.


We are in the middle of a whale zoo.  Hawaii is the place in the northern Pacific where the largest population of humpbacks gather to breed and give birth.  They come here from November to April, swimming back to Alaska thereafter to feed.  It is estimated that over half of the 85,000 or so humpbacks have been born in Hawaiian waters.  They return here each year in wintertime.

I’ve never seen a humpback before, although I have seen a sperm whale when we were on New Zealand.  We saw some Killer Whales when we were sailing between Galapagos and the Marquesas.

This is our first day in this whale paradise – we are more than impressed when we see the whales spouting and their back fins and tails coming up to the surface.  It is only at a distance – but still.

That evening we are sitting on the foredeck having a well-deserved G&T when we almost spill our drinks.  Two adult whales and a calf are swimming straight at Capri.  I run to the bows and Carsten gets the camera.  They are now less than 20 meters from Capri – wow – and continue very close to our anchor buoy.  Carsten continues to film even though it is almost dark.  A big tourist boat comes by and scares the whales.  As they turn to get away from the boat, they ram the anchor chain on the buoy.  Whoa, I hope our clamps and lines can stand the strain.  We have heard of sailors that have had their anchor winches destroyed by a whale hitting their anchor chain.  We’re lucky, but the whales have dived down and swum away.  Unbelievable that they come in so close to land where there is only 50 feet of water.


Mamawhale coming right at Capri. Note the blowhole and the width of her back. She is about 40-50 feet away

Already the next day at sundown we learn just how close the whales like to come.  A mother whale and her calf swim directly at Capri and at the last moment dive under the boat.  Frightened us half to death all the while we were excited by it.

The video shows a whale approaching Capri, it is difficult to keep the camera steady in these swells.

We are on an anchor buoy in waters that are well protected by four volcano islands and where the water is less than 150 meters deep.  The area is ideal for whales to birth their calves in peaceful surroundings.  Calling their calves “babies” is a bit of a misnomer since they can be up to five meters long, as long as their mothers head and weigh up to two tons.  The gestation period is eleven-and-half months.  The calves suckle for six months and then mix suckling and firm food (krill) for the next six.  When the calf is strong enough (late spring), the mother and calf begin the long swim back to Alaska (more than two thousand nm).  Killer whales are the greatest threat to young claves and the whales tend to swim in groups because of this.  Sharks are generally not a threat – the calves are bigger than the sharks.

My concern for ramming a whale is well-grounded in reason.  These whales are bigger than our boat.  But I become calmer when I read that these whales do not sleep on the surface, which I thought all whales did.  Humpbacks swim and dive 24/7, but do need to come to the surface to breathe as all mammals do.  Apparently, one-half of the whale’s brain sleeps while the other half takes care of the functions of swimming, surfacing and breathing.  So, we might still hit one – but the chances are slim.

We’ve often written that Vinni and Carsten don’t follow the statistics when it comes to meteorology and oceanography.  When we arrive somewhere – things frequently happen to us that rarely happen there – apparently the weather gods and King Neptune like to play jokes on us.  This time however, we again fall outside the statistics, but we’re happy we did.

Whale births are rarely seen, and humpback whale births are even rarer.  No one has ever filmed one.  One morning, less than 80 meters from the boat – a calf is born.  Well damn!  Now we’re Godparents to a whale!  Says Carsten.

It is around noon and we’ve just gotten back to the boat after shopping.  I’m below stowing the food when I hear Carsten yell; Vinni, hurry up here, there’s a whale right alongside Capri.  I rush up the companionway and sure enough, there is a whale lying there, half submerged.  Funny, the whale stays there with only its tail above the water – is it sick?  Nothing happens the next couple of minutes.  Are they mating?  I ask Carsten.  He doesn’t think so since we can only see one whale.  Suddenly we realize it is giving birth and we rush to get the cameras.  I don’t know how long we waited, probably only 5 minutes or so.  Then we see some bubbles and the whale glides under the surface and a large grey film spreads over the water, the placenta.  The mother surfaces and sends up a huge spout and there, right alongside is a tiny spout, then another tiny spout and finally a third.  The calf is born!  Slowly they begin to swim, leaving the placenta behind.  Fortunately, no sharks come around – we have been told they are attracted by the placenta.

The little calf starts swimming around and gyrating on the surface – acting like a little puppy.  Calves can only hold their breath for 3 to 5 minutes while adults can hold theirs for 40 minutes.  The calf is obviously showing off for its mother, splashing with its tail and jumping out of the water.  I sure it yelling, Yahooo! I’m BORN!  The mother applauds by slapping the surface with huge flipper.  This is an out-of-this-world experience.

The little calf, curious as youngsters are, swims over and surfaces next to a tourist boat.  That’s a no go and mom comes flying over and calls the calf away.  Fortunately, the mother didn’t see the boat as a great threat and left it alone.  The calf romps around Capri for the next half hour, before they both swim away.  Female humpbacks reach maturity at 5 years and calve every other or third year.  Males mature at seven.  Both sexes can be up to 80 years old.

Here’s a unique video – The Birth of a Whale.  Enjoy it

We are simply both awed that we have had this experience.

Several days later, while I’m in town and Carsten is working in the cockpit, he hears a whale spout right next to him.  By the way, whale exhalations smell like old gym socks.  This time it is two adults and two calves, playing like dolphins in the water around Capri.  Enjoy this exceptional video.

I have to admit that while humpbacks aren’t particularly pretty, they are fascinating, especially since they apparently aren’t shy of humans.  They are curious, friendly and social.  The live in groups, play and protect each other and other denizens of the deep.  In many ways, the humpbacks are like huge dolphins.  Just so you realize – Capri is 12.2 meters long and weighs, fully loaded, 11 tons.  A mature humpback is up to 16 meters long and weighs 25-30 tons.  They are black on their top side and white on the bottom.  Their fin makes the whale look like a hunchback – therefore the name.  Their tails are almost one-third of the whale’s length.  Their color patterns, shape of the tail and scars help identify the individual whale.

They also have a characteristic head shape.  The upper part of the head and their lower jaw have sensing lobes with 1 to 2 hairs.  I thought that these lobes were barnacles that had grown on the whale.  Humpbacks are known for their very long (the record is six meters) pectoralis fins.

Along the side of the stomach, there are deep lines that allow the stomach area to expand when the whale swallows large amounts of water and feed.  These whales only feed during the summer north near the polar regions and fast the entire time they are in the temperate zone here in Hawaii.  During these six months, they burn their fat depots.  The humpback is a baleen whale and has no teeth.  On each side of the mouth there are three to four hundred long hairs, each between an half and a whole meter long, that turn in towards the mouth and filter water out while keeping feed in.

Humpbacks have a special feeding strategy that we won’t see until we get to Alaska.  They use what is called a “bubble-net”.  They fish in large groups where most of the group dive down and form a circle thirty meters or so in diameter.  There they blow bubbles, creating bubble walls.  Above them, several whales pound the surface with their tails frightening smaller fish into the “net”.  The small fish are afraid of the bubbles and can’t escape.  The whales then make the “net” smaller and finally several of the whales will swim up through the “net” with wide-open mouths gathering in everything in their path.  They eat shrimp and fish, even small salmon.  We hope to spot this happening when we are in Alaska this summer.

One evening when I had gone to bed early and Carsten was reading, he thought he could hear the whales singing.  It is apparently the male that has developed his song, a complicated series of melodies.  They can sing for up to a half hour.  The song is used to court the female, but is also used to impress other males with his strength and size.  The female also make noise – but only for short periods.

Since the humpback became a protected species in 1966, the population has grown so much that the whales are beginning to seek out areas of the globe where they haven’t been seen for centuries.  Humpbacks have been seen in Danish waters several times in the past few years.  Only Norway and Japan continue to hunt whales, although in a limited number.

The only animal that threatens a humpback is the killer whale and to avoid this threat, the humpbacks swim in pods.  When a whale defends itself or its calf, it attacks the killer whale with its huge pectoral fins that have a knuckle at the end.

Humpbacks do die by getting caught in deep water fishing nets or collisions with ships.  Underwater demolition explosions can stress the whales and confuse them, causing them to miscarriage.

Carsten and I haven’t decided yet if we are going to sail westward across the Pacific from Mexico or continue south.  Before Hawaii, I had said to Carsten that I would regret not having seen and snorkeled with the whales at Tonga.  It is forbidden to dive or snorkel with the whales here on Hawaii, but we have already had so many unique experiences with giant creatures that I don’t think I will regret it if we don’t turn westward.

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