By Jan TenBruggencate
A couple of years ago, a whale popped up in front of me as I was paddling a one-man canoe alone under the cliffs between Maha‘ulepu and Nawiliwili.
There wasn’t another human in sight, nor a boat. I was paddling along, riding small ocean bumps, when the deep blue water in front of me changed color, and then lost its pattern.
I remember stabbing my paddle flat into the ocean to stop the canoe, to keep me from sliding right up onto the gray-green slick surface in front of me.
It was a young humpback whale, maybe 20 or more feet long. As long as my canoe, and dozens, maybe hundreds of times heavier. The baby seemed oblivious of me. The mother whale, more than twice as long and far more massive, was cruising just below the babe.
I could peer down into the clear water and see the two of them.
I just sat as still as you can sit on a blue carbon-fiber canoe bobbing on the waves created by both the dominant ocean swells and the backwash from the cliffs. I had barely managed to avoid touching the whale with the bow of my boat.
The calf flipped its tail below the surface, not affecting at all my tippy craft.
Slowly, mother and calf went on their way, and then they dove, and disappeared.
There are all kinds of words. Magical. Mysterious. Even religious. But it was absolutely a moment I cherish in memory.
When I was a kid on Molokai, humpback whales weren’t on our radar.
We didn’t see them breaching, weren’t really aware of them at all.
That seems to be because there weren’t that many of them in those days, when whaling was still actively practiced. They seemed rare to me, a kid who had spent years along the coast.
Even 20 years later, there were more humpbacks, but they were not common.
The animals got protection through most of the Pacific waters through the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
That’s not to say a few whales weren’t still being taken, but the aggressive whaling that led to their decline to just a few thousand throughout the Pacific had ended.
A 1986 report in the Canadian Journal of Zoology suggested that an active count of whales in the Hawaiian Islands, identifying them by their color patterns, saw a total of just 521 in a single year in the late 1970s. The article estimated maybe a maximum of 1,000 humpbacks in Hawai`i in any one winter at that time.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary estimates that there were maybe 4,000 in the Islands in winter by 1993.
The number has climbed steadily And now, it stands at maybe 10,000. Across the ocean, the Sanctuary reports, “the North Pacific humpback whale population now numbers more than 21,000.”
What a difference a ban can make in a species with good reproductive capacity.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.