Whale Watching

Photographing Humpback Whales (and watching them too!)

Posted on by jim

One of my big passions (and one of the things that keeps me infatuated with Maui) is photographing the Humpback Whales that show up every December for a few months. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years and they never cease to amaze me. This post has some of my photography, all of which are available as prints, if you’re interested please reach out to me: jim@exploringmaui.com

Humpback whales in Maui, underwater

Photographing them underwater is tough. Hawaii is a national sanctuary for them so you’re not allowed to just jump into the water with them. So these photos are shot hanging over the side of a boat. The camera is a foot or so below the water. Also, if you were able to get in the water with them, you’d want to scuba dive which is problematic. Bubbles are seen as an aggressive behavior and normal scuba gear creates LOTS of bubbles. So… you need special equipment if you don’t feel like getting into a whale fight.

Humpback whales in Maui, fighting

Speaking of which, whales fights are a pretty spectacular part of whale watching. The often use the barnacles that have attached themselves to the whale as a weapon. In this photo you can see the red blood and scrapes from such attacks.

Humpback whales in Maui, fluke

Of course, more often than not, the whales are big, beautiful animals gracefully moving through the ocean. Putting their tail up to do a deep dive with, in this case, the island of Moloka’i creating something of a heart shape for the perfect background. Most of the time they are just beautiful creatures radiating a sense of peacefulness.

Until it’s time to not be peaceful. While peaceful whales may be wonderfully meditative, most people don’t go on whale watches to meditate. They want to see fighting whales, Mom and Calves playing, and, especially, breaches. Where a 50 ton animal, with two swishes of it’s tail (a 7 ton muscle unto itself) propels itself completely out of the water.

It’s awesome and you just never really get tired of see it happen.

However, for all the excitement of the breach, the true joy of a whale watch, if you’re lucky, is when they come up to the boat itself. This doesn’t happen often and you shouldn’t expect it, but especially in January and February (peak season) it is not uncommon. All the underwater shots you see here were taken with the whale between 5-15 feet away from the boat. To be THAT close to a 50 ton animal is incredible in a way that words can’t describe.

I’ve spent probably 200 hours or so chasing them around. (this is not that much time! Ask some of the whale watch crew how much time they’ve spent on the water.) They are amazing animals. But the true life lesson I’ve gotten from all this is how truly amazing the ocean itself is. It is teeming with life in so many ways. While whale watching and scuba diving I’ve seen superpods of dolphins going out to feed (a mile long train of hundreds of spinner dolphins). I’ve been up close and personal with manta rays off the coast of the big island. I’ve seen thousands of fish swimming around the coral reefs of Lana’i. On a friend’s boat we came across a pod of pilot whales that were teaching their young how to feed. Until you spend some time on the ocean, it’s hard to understand how amazing and important it is. We, humans, are doing serious damage to it. When people talk about ocean conservation, they aren’t joking. It’s a serious problem. Climate change, plastics, overfishing… we are as dependent on the ocean as it is on us. Please take care of it.

(A note about the pilot whales (fyi, they are 15-20 foot apex predators part of the dolphin family, a bit smaller than orcas and not to be messed around with) a couple of friends who are marine biologists got in the water with them. One of the adults had a serious problem with it and came up to one of my friends extremely aggressively. Her thought at the time: “This is amazing! I’m going to die, but this is amazing!” The other friend captured a great photo of it, which I need to find)

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