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Whale Season on Maui
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

"Whales at four o'clock," came the cry. On board the catamaran, we scrambled to aim our cameras and waited. In the distance, the lush slopes of Haleakala volcano rose 10,000 feet into the clouds. Suddenly, there they were again, a few hundred yards away. First a little telltale cloud of mist, then the flash of a tail fluke. Then another. The humpbacks had returned to Maui, as they do each winter, from December through March.

It was a gratifying moment. Years ago, I wrote a book on the little-known involvement of Hawaiian laborers in the Northwest Coast fur trade. I knew that thousands of young Hawaiians had also worked on nineteenth century whaling ships. And I had just been reading the gripping but sad tale of the Hawaii-based sperm whale fishery, which nearly wiped out those leviathans of the deep. So I arrived on Maui primed to learn more. I was wondering about the present abundance of whales in the north Pacific and hoping to see them for myself.

My wife and I were staying north of Lahaina, on Maui's western side. Looking out past the beach with its fluttering palms, we could see the rugged island of Molokai. The channel in between is sheltered and shallow. This makes it an ideal hangout for humpbacks, which fatten up in summer in the cold, food-rich waters off Alaska but seek warmer and calmer seas for breeding and bearing their young. Even before unpacking, I was out on our balcony, or "lanai", with binoculars, scanning the horizon for whales. A guest at our hotel said she had spotted a baby humpback right in close to shore.

Soon we were working on our tans and enjoying the beach. When we had enough sun, we headed off to laid-back Lahaina to lunch in friendly open-sided restaurants with funky names like Bubba Gump's or Cheeseburger in Paradise. Or we ducked into the wall-to-wall t-shirt shops and galleries, looking for gifts and souvenirs. Other days, we ate at inexpensive little Oriental places hidden away in barebones strip malls, but with outstanding food. Evenings, after a late swim, we strolled along the beachfront, trying to decide which breezy eatery offered the best seafood, local microbrew and place to watch the sunset. A tough routine, but somebody had to do it.

One day we drove the upcountry with its sprawling cattle ranches and the strange subtropical shrubs and trees that grow at 3000 or 4000 feet. And we went to the top of Haleakala for the famous view, only to find it socked in
by clouds. But mainly we explored the island's maritime realm and heritage. South of Lahaina was the Maui Ocean Center, a fine aquarium where you could walk through an underwater Plexiglas tunnel and look up at the sting
rays as they swept overhead. In the sea itself, I snorkeled along lava cliffs festooned with corals and sea urchins, which attracted a dazzling array of colorful fishes.

The Whaler's Village mall displayed a 40-foot sperm whale skeleton and a graceful wooden whaling longboat. Upstairs was an excellent little museum with exhibits of long barbed harpoons, vicious flensing "spades" and huge pots for melting blubber. The statistics were grim and astonishing. In the mid-19th century, 400 whaling ships visited Hawaiian ports in an average year. Between 1825 and 1872, the American whaling fleet alone killed an estimated 292,000 whales. In the peak decade of the 1850s, 14,000,000 pounds of baleen (whale bone) and 17,500,000 gallons of whale oil were transshipped from the Islands. Lahaina became a filthy and disease-ridden warren of ship chandleries and bars, of churches and brothels. 

But massive slaughter decimated whale populations, the catch plummeted and the industry collapsed. This was just in time to spare most species. Dr. Rob Wilder, former Conservation Director of Maui's Pacific Whale Foundation,
told me that exact numbers did not exist. But he accepted estimates that humpbacks, which had once totaled some 15,000, fell to around 1,000 at their lowest, but were now back up to 5,000 or more. His concern today is that
the entire ocean ecosystem is vulnerable to pollution, coastal habitat loss, and overharvesting up and down the food chain.

Meanwhile, though, whales are thriving around Maui, and we were anxious to see them. As we motored out on the whale watching boat, the young naturalist on board assured us there had been sightings earlier that day and our chances were good. Still, it was electrifying when those two or three humpbacks actually appeared.

They were heading north, periodically diving and reappearing, so our skipper slowed down and steered a converging course in the same direction. With each dive, we got closer. Their rubbery dark gray backs and dorsal fins
were clearly visible as they rolled along rhythmically, cleaving the waves. Then their tail flukes would rise and shimmer briefly in the sun, and they'd dive again.

The seas got rougher, so the captain turned back to search for other whales. A few small bottlenose dolphins scooted past and vanished. The amplified hydrophone allowed us to listen to the weird squeaks and moans of the sea
below, but no whale songs were to be heard and the afternoon waned.

We cruised back to Lahaina inspired by the experience. Granted, we had not seen breaching, where whales hurl themselves skyward, or the sight of dozens cavorting together. It was very early in the season, and most humpbacks had not arrived from Alaska yet. But for a brief time we had felt ourselves part of this largely hidden but vibrant marine world. And we had a perfect excuse to return again to Maui, just as the whales do each year, in hopes of an even
closer encounter.


We were hosted by three deluxe beachfront hotels, all with sprawling, multi-level free-form pools, beautifully landscaped grounds, night-lit tennis courts, adjacent golf courses, fine restaurants and countless other amenities.

The elegant low-rise Sheraton features tropical room decor and serene, manicured grounds with Polynesian-style outbuildings and colorful freshwater koi in fishponds. The three-night "Wild about Whales" package, including
best-situated deluxe oceanfront rooms and a whale watching tour, costs $1472 incl. tax. Late winter and spring special "escape" rates start at $269 per night. Phone 800-782-9488.

Marriott's family-friendly Maui Ocean Club has mock shipwrecks and water slides in its super-pool, hand-carved outrigger canoes in the lobby, and a popular nightly luau. Spacious, tastefully furnished one and two-bedroom
suites ("villas") with partial cooking facilities and extra bathrooms are sold as fee-simple vacation ownerships, entitling deed-holders to one week a year starting at around $ 18, 000 (plus modest service fees). Unused weeks can be exchanged for weeks in Marriott's many other locations. Phone 800-638-8138.

The genteel Ritz-Carlton has architecture evoking both Mediterranean and Oriental styles, and splendid gardens. Guests enjoy Italian tilework, double sinks and deep tubs in the bathrooms, plushy carpeted hallways for quiet
privacy, superb room service and a sensitive Hawaiian cultural program. For rates and special packages, phone 800-527-2582.

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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