Winter Visitors

by Na Pali Riders’ Captain Chris Turner

Most winter visitors to the islands of Kauai in Hawaii do not expect to experience an up-close experience with a Humpback Whale. Most simply envision sitting under a pristine, coconut-tree lined beach, possibly drinking a delicious mai tai – with the ever-present small umbrella of course. For those who are on a honeymoon, perhaps envisioning a hiking adventure to a secluded romantic waterfall is in their thoughts. While these and other wonderful experiences are all part of a Hawaiian vacation, getting the opportunity to encounter a Humpback Whale, well, this would bring their vacation experience to a whole other level. Once enjoyed, I feel that they would be “hooked,” or maybe “whale-watching addicted”. This is an addiction for which there is no cure!

Our rafting group gets to meet the same visitors – year after year – coming back for just this very experience with the whales. One couple once whale-watched five days in a row via our raft! They laughed, but were not deterred. Whale season generally starts around the months of December through May. Most visiting whales stay an average of 2-3 months, with moms and their new calves, staying a little longer. A great whale show may be the best day of your vacation and possibly one of the best days of your life!
It is truly hard to put into words the experience the feeling of seeing a fifty ton creature that is approximately also fifty feet long floating right next to a thirty foot Zodiac raft, but I will give it my best shot. The first thing that comes to mind is they are similar in size to dinosaurs, so the mere size of these mostly gentle creatures is intimidating and kind staggers the mind. A modern whale watch raft trip to see them is as close as one will get to a real “Jurassic Park” type experience. The great news is that Humpbacks are not carnivores, rather they consume the abundant krill and herring up in the northern Pacific Ocean between Russia to Alaska during the summer months. That is where they bulk up to gain over a third of their fatty reserves. These reserves are what they need this to survive the long journey to Hawaii, as well as the mating and birthing winter “vacation” they too enjoy right here in the islands.

As you read this you have probably guessed that I am a whale addict myself. Each and every encounter is different for me. Sometimes it’s just simply experiencing the love I note that a feeding baby Humpbacks has as it is snuggled next to its mom. I often wonder how it can be possible to be so drawn to whales as a human. What is so exciting or addicting about Humpback whales?

There are many explanations, but this is my best answer: There are very few animal mating behaviors that come close to the human adrenaline-pumping sight of watching a mating male Humpback. I describe it like this: Imagine a speeding whale “train” of whales going in many directions. The female is the “engine,” with no fewer than a dozen or so males “boxcars” in tow. The smaller, younger, novice whale “box cars” at the back are coming off the tracks. Each will try to slam on top of the whale in front – doing anything to achieve that front row position behind the female at the lead. This is the time when breaching of the whales is greatest. The breech is described as a Humpback Whale launching itself airborne. Seeing two to three whales airborne at one time is not uncommon. Most of their breeches might be just for fun, but in a whale battle it is more an intimidation tactic.
For the whale that times his moves correctly, much like a whale would be in a “World Wrestling All-Stars” match in which he gets his adversary out of position, he could score the female. This is of course true if his move conquers the last whale that is in that in prime position up front by the female. Sometimes there are also injurious battles that go on. Some raw battle wounds can sometimes be seen on their humps. For whales this could be considered their “Superbowl” mating game. They live for this moment. This is what it is all about. The males have been patiently waiting, living for this mating game. Eight months of the year they feed in the north Pacific some 2300 miles away, bulking up to store reserves and to add to their bulk so as to win in the mating game.

I highly encourage all to experience the humpbacks’ visit to the islands this winter season. Come and learn more – firsthand – about the wonders of our annual visitors, the Humpback Whales. As you can read, I truly love whales and sharing my experiences with you. My love for whales is great, but I do simply request that you do not call me in the middle of the night with whale questions. As stated earlier, please remember whale addiction lasts forever, for which there is no cure!

Aloha and a hui ho!

Captain Chris, Napali Riders