More from Hawaii: humpback whales & humans

DOWNEY - Here in Lahaina, Hawaii, it's warm, and humpback whales are visible at almost every ocean glance. The whales too are here because it's warm, birthing and mating far from the cold water temperatures of their Alaskan summer feeding habitat. Pregnant and fertile females, their newborn calves, one- and two-year-old juveniles, and lots of males hoping to mate reside here between mid-December and mid-May, where they go about their business mostly oblivious to the human activities around them.Their activities, on the other hand, captivate tourists, especially the antics of the cute and cuddly little whale calves and their mamas, as they frolic in the 70-plus degree Hawaiian ocean waters. Humpback babies, by the way, are about 2 tons at birth, and adult females, slightly larger than the males, average about 45 tons. Our premise here is that the relationship between humans and whales can provide insight into our larger relationship with the world around us, as we undertake a second week of observations from Hawaii. But first, a little family history: fossil remains demonstrate that humpback whale evolution began some 55 million years ago, as four-legged land mammals slowly adapted to an all-marine environment. The hippopotamus is probably the whale's closest extant land relative, and it's striking how whale skeletal structure has stretched and shrunk from its terrestrial origins in order to maximize marine efficiency, including flippers--more properly, pectoral fins--where fingered paws or hooves used to be. The Hawaiian islands, by comparison, began to develop through volcanic activity roughly 25 million years ago. And we humans embarked on our own existence as a separate bipedal sub-species a mere five million years ago. Clearly we're the new kids on the block. Moreover, using as a gauge the 10-million-year average species lifetime previously mentioned in this column, humans are only about halfway to typical species duration, while whales have already outlived that average by a factor of five. Whales have intrigued humans for millennia. The Bible speaks of "leviathan," and Aristotle categorizes them in his scientific writing as early as 400 B.C. But only in the early 19th century did humans begin to exploit whales, primarily for whale oil as an illuminant, prior to the advent of fossil fuel. For a time during the first half of the century, more than 500 whaling ships per year stopped in Lahaina, on the shore of Western Maui, a few miles down the road from where this article is being written. Humpback whale oil turned out to be less profitable than that of the sperm whale, so the Lahaina whaling industry was short-lived. Nevertheless, the global whale population was decimated in the ensuing century. While the most conservative scientific figures estimate a decrease to 10% of its pre-whaling numbers by the mid twentieth century, other calculations suggest a decline to as little as 1%. The Pacific Whale Foundation, in its book, "Humpbacks of Hawai'i--the Long Journey Back," states that the North Pacific humpback whale population was estimated to be fewer than 600 in 1966. A population this small is dangerously close to extinction. In fact, responding not only to the sobering scientific data, but also to a sea change in public sentiment regarding whale ecology, international groups, including the International Whaling Commission, began to ban commercial whaling beginning in 1966. Whaling bans have continued to expand since then, and in the case of the North Pacific humpback, its population is now in the range of 20-23,000 and continues to increase at a rate of about 7% per year, thanks in part to the popularity of whale-watching, now a multi-million dollar industry. So whaling's out and whale-watching is in. Happy ending, right? Actually that's only half the story, as it turns out our mammalian whale cousins are threatened in new ways by modern anthropogenic activity. We'll look at the second half of this story next week.

********** Published: February 14, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 44