When the winds blow at 25 knots, the surface of the ocean looks like a shimmering field of snow. And all those whitecaps make it difficult to spot whales lolling about the surface of the ocean–even with binoculars. It also makes for cold weather–if you consider the low 70s cold. We in Hawaii do, especially with the wind-chill factor that dips the mercury into the high 60s. Call us thin-skinned and thin-blooded.
Still, some 650 intrepid volunteers braved the winds this past Saturday morning and counted an average of two whales every 15 minutes. (A few sites, like the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua’i, closed early due to reported gusts of 45 knots.) During the height of the winter whale season, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary orchestrates a state-wide count on the last Saturday of the months of January, February and March.
Humpback whales visit Hawaii’s waters each winter to mate, calve and nurse their young. Hawaiian waters provide critical breeding habitat for approximately two-thirds of the North Pacific stock of humpback whales, according to sanctuary officials. Whales grow to 45 tons and 45 feet long. A thick blubbery coat wraps their entire body–even on calves, which I recently witnessed at a necropsy. So, I would guess the blustery weather that had me wearing long pants and three layers on top went completely unnoticed by our visiting cetaceans (and many two-legged visitors, as well).
While Saturday’s numbers skewed lower than previous years for February, which could very well be because of the weather, they did equal January’s count. The results of the data collection go toward corroborating a recent study that reported an annual increase of humpback whales in Hawaii of seven percent, bringing Hawaii’s total to 10,000 to 12,000. Good news, right? Yes. And no.
More whales in the water mean a greater chance for whale strikes by boats. This year, reports of three whale strikes have made newspaper headlines. All three incidents happened off Maui where whales are known to congregate in greater numbers than elsewhere in Hawaii. The latest strike occurred this past Friday. So far, one woman was injured and there are no confirmed injuries to the whales. Of course, it’s hard to say with whales, because they live in a world largely inaccessible by us. They may swim away, only to die hours or days later and then get swept away by currents. When we performed the necropsy of the dead calf in February, we carefully extracted bones and sent them off for further laboratory testing. No obvious signs–propeller wounds, for example–pointed to a collision with a boat, and I doubt even the bones will reveal the real cause of death. But a boat collision is a possibility.
The animal lover and conservationist in me thinks it might be a good idea to stay off the water during peak whale season–in those places where whales congregate and especially in weather that makes it hard to spot the fifth largest of the great whales. Instead, I’ll opt for a good pair of binoculars and a well-chosen vantage point from land. I’ll also head to the library to rent Ocean Voyager, a documentary narrated by Meryl Streep. No two-hour whale-watching tour could ever compare to the rare footage captured by Feodor Pitcairn and his team as they follow a one-day-old humpback whale calf and its mother for several months. I recommend watching it. Again and Again. Truth is, you can’t get any closer to whales than your sofa with this DVD playing.