Mugged in Maui: a whale tale

DOWNEY - Last Saturday my wife and I were mugged in Maui. Actually, that's a good thing when it pertains to whale-watching in the waters off Maui, where it is said you've experienced a "Maui mugging" if you were held hostage by whales too near for your boat to move in accordance with U.S. marine law, which prohibits a boat from using its power within 100 yards of a humpback whale.In our case it was two males who seemed to be engaged in a face-off within a twenty foot radius on all sides of, as well as under, our boat. They hung around for about half an hour before finally moving far enough out of the way for our whale-watching raft captain to turn on the engine and make for shore. All this despite the fact that the female humpback they were probably competing for had long since moved out of the area. There's no ready explanation for why they continued to entertain us, but the gist of their activity was to surface near each other on the port side, for example, then disappear until we heard their loud and sudden blow-hole breaths on the starboard side right behind us, then disappear again, only to surface unexpectedly in another position. Occasionally we could see them underneath the boat, partly because the pectoral fins (that is, flippers) of one of the two were white on top, a rare genetic variation, since most humpbacks are dark on top and light on the bottom. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The simple majesty and grace of these prehistoric leviathans is awe-inspiring. Each of the males, most likely not yet fully mature, probably weighed somewhere in the range of 60-70,000 pounds. With a flick of their tails, they could have capsized our boat. With a good heave of their backs they could have tossed it in the air. Yet, as mentioned last week, whales no longer seem to fear humans as they rightly did during the whaling era, when they were brought to the brink of extinction. Which brings us back to the point we reached in this discussion last week: whales, saved by human action from extinction at the hands of human exploitation from whaling, are again threatened by several new sources of modern human activity. Pacific Whale Foundation, the same non-profit research organization that hosted the whale-watching trip on which my wife and I were "mugged," has catalogued these threats in a book co-written by its founder and entitled, "Humpbacks of Hawai'i--the Long Journey Back." From this writer's point of view, the book's summary of these threats could not be more eloquently stated, so it's included here in its entirety: "Even if whales continue to escape the harpoons of whaling ships, they must face the growing possibility of being struck by huge, fast-moving ships; of getting entangled and drowned in the ever-increasing drift nets and marine debris carelessly dumped into the ocean; of being poisoned from the toxins that run from our coastlines into the oceans; of becoming confused and even permanently damaged by various forms of human-induced noise; of having their food disappear because of overfishing and global warming; and of being displaced from their critical habitat by human action. Any animal must be able to adapt to changes in its environment to ensure their survival, but it is difficult for humpbacks and other marine mammals to adapt to changes that literally happen overnight. It remains to be seen whether we can control the size and activity of the human population to secure the continued existence of so many of the species with which we are meant to share this planet." This statement in itself provides an analog for humans, as well as an agenda for further discussion. We'll examine that agenda in our next column.

********** Published: February 21, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 45