A Whale of a Tail, part 3

We enjoyed a 180 degree view of the ocean from our apartment. We looked for whales and turtles with the naked eye and binoculars. Usually the whales stopped splashing before we could get a camera out.

On our last morning on Maui, a competition pod was active long enough to takes pictures after setting up the tripod and camera.

On the right are the mother and calf. In the center a male is swimming on his side and raising his pectoral fin to slap it. On the left is a second male is breaching next to the other male.

competition pod heating up
competition pod heating up

Here the mother and calf are followed by a lunging male, where less than 40% of the body is out of the water.

mother and calf followed by lunging male
mother and calf followed by lunging male

Below, most of the whale’s body, including both pectoral fins, are out of the water, so this is called a breach. We did not see a whale breach on either of our cruises.

breaching whale with both pectoral fins visible
breaching whale with both pectoral fins visible

On a whale watching cruise you’re a lot closer to the whales than from your balcony, so you see more on a cruise. But watching whales from your balcony sure is comfortable, and the price is right!

After mounting the camera on the tripod, I turned off the lens image stabilization and attached a shutter release, to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter button.

The above photos were taken at 400 mm and cropped to show more detail, since blog photos are limited in size. Here’s an uncropped photo to help illustrate the difference cropping makes.

whales in the Maui-Molokai channel
whales in the Maui-Molokai channel

In this image cropped the the above, we can more easily see three whales and houses on the distant Molokai shore.

crop example
crop example

After taking these photos, we packed up and rushed to the airport to catch our plane.

A Whale of a Tail, part 2

We went on second whale watching cruise from Lahaina, Maui. Like the first cruise, it was a warm, calm day in February in Hawaii — perfect for shorts and tee shirt. We saw pectoral fin slaps.

I like the blue-gray ocean in this photo. The water has an abstract, impressionist look. Doesn’t quite look like ocean, except for the whale tail and horizon.

whale tail in blue-gray ocean
whale tail in blue-gray ocean

A humpback mother and calf loitered near our boat. The mother felt comfortable with us; otherwise, she’d put herself between the boat and her calf.

humpback mother and calf
humpback mother and calf

An escort made his presence felt.

escort diving
escort diving

This whale is swimming away.  The top of the whale is visible from the head, to the bump with blowholes, along the back, to the dorsal fin.

humpback blowholes
humpback blowholes

A whale tail and a small boat.

whale watchers
whale watchers

Here’s a tail slap. Notice the spray and that the tips of the tail are higher than the base.

tail slap
tail slap

Finally, the mother, calf, and escort. The whale on the left is exhaling; in the middle, the calf’s dorsal fin is visible; the whale on the right is diving.

mother, calf, and escort
mother, calf, and escort

Humpback Whale Pectoral Fin Slapping and Barnacles

The humpback whale’s pectoral fins can be up to 15′ long, proportionally the longest of all whales. A humpback whale can lie on the surface of the water and slap the water with its pectoral fin.

On our second whale watching cruise in Maui, we saw a whale slap the water with its pectoral fin. In the slideshow below, there are two whales, one behind the other, with the island of Lanai in the background. The sequence starts with the back whale raising its pectoral fin and ends with a splash. The elapsed time  is almost a second.

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The dorsal fin of the front whale is visible. The whale in back is lying on the surface behind the first whale. The whale in back raises its pectoral fin and slaps the water behind it, away from the front whale. Perhaps the front whale is a female, and the back whale is a male.

At the beginning of the sequence, the front whale is lying flat on the surface. By the end, the whale’s back is bent and the dorsal fin is raised — the whale is getting ready to dive. Here’s the tail with water streaming off, 3 seconds later.

front whale diving

There are some white spots at the back edge of the tail. As seen in this crop from the photo above, the white spots are barnacles, all clustered at the tip of the tail.

barnacles on whale tail
barnacles on whale tail

These whales were near our boat — the photos were taken at 100 mm, the shortest focal length on the 100-400 mm lens. An interesting feature of the Canon 100-400 mm lens is the push-pull action to change the focal length. Lenses usually have a ring that you twist. After you get accustomed to the push-pull, it’s very fast for zooming, especially useful when photographing wildlife where you make rapid adjustments or lose the shot.

A Whale of a Tail, Part 1

There are humpback whales that commute betwen Alaska and Hawaii. Humpback whales eat fish and krill, and Alaska is where their food is. However, Alaskan waters are too cold for the calves to survive so females journey to Hawaii to calve. Males go to Hawaii to mate because the females are there. In the winter (December to April), humpback whales visit Maui to calve and mate.

Adult humpback whales range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). Hawaii has warm, blue waters, but it doesn’t have krill, so the whales live off their fat until they return to Alaska. A mother loses half her bodyweight nursing her calf. A male loses a third of his bodyweight in Hawaii.

We visited Maui in February to watch the whales. We went on whale watching cruise from Lahaina with Trilogy, a company that sails catamarans. A catamaran is more stable than a monohull boat. Trilogy limits passengers to about 40, so there’s more room to wander around the boat to see whales. We were lucky with the weather. During our cruise, it was bright, warm (80 degrees F in February!), no wind, and calm seas.

The humpback whale has a powerful, flexible tail. When diving, the humpback bends its head down and shows its dorsal fin, looking like a humpback. Hence its name.

humpback whale
humpback whale

After you see the humpback, you watch for the tail. If it’s a deep dive, you’ll see a tail. Forty minutes into our 2-hour cruise, we saw this tail with water streaming off.

humpback whale tail

Next we saw some male whales competing for the attention of a female. This is called a competition pod, where the males show off for the female and try to intimidate the other males. The female chooses her escort, at least until a bigger, stronger guy comes along. Humpback whales do not mate for life.

Here’s a whale spouting, emptying its lungs after a deep dive, with another whale looking on. The humpback has a mound on its head, and the blowhole is located behind the mound.

whales surfacing and spouting
whales surfacing and spouting

Humpback whales have small bumps on their heads. Being mammals, whales have hair. The bumps are hair follicles. Notice the star pattern from the sun reflecting off a follicle. The effect is more pronounced in the original photo.

Follicles shining brightly
Follicles shining brightly

The three whales in this sequence are swimming close together.

whale spouting
whale spouting
three's a crowd
three’s a crowd

This whale had a bite taken out of its side. See pink hole on the right-hand side of the photo, above the white water. The first mate told us there’s a kind of shark that takes a bite.

wounded whale
wounded whale

Returning to harbor, we were treated with another tail. These two photos show the top and bottom of the same whale’s tail.

whale tail with water streaming off
whale tail with water streaming off

The white and black markings on the bottom side of the tail uniquely identify the whale.

tail markings identify the whale
tail markings identify the whale

We had a great time whale watching.

I used a Canon 40D camera and a 100 mm – 400 mm telephoto lens. The focal length of these photos ranged from 135 mm to 400 mm, so the extra reach of this telephoto helped. On an earlier whale watching cruise in Argentina, I used a 70 mm -200 mm lens, and the longer lens worked out much better. The camera has a feature to take continuous photos when the shutter button is held down. It’s great for wildlife action, and I’m slowly learning to use this feature.

Honu is a Green Sea Turtle

Honu is the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle. From the balcony of a Maui apartment, we spent hours watching up to four turtles eat algae from submerged rocks close to shore, seeing if we could spot them and waiting for them to surface and show themselves. Similar to what you do on a safari, except in Hawaii. Watching wildlife is like a treasure hunt — you don’t know if you’ll find what you’re looking for, but you can increase your chances by knowing what to look for (understanding the animal’s behavior, in the case of wildlife).

sea turtle with front feet visible
sea turtle with front feet visible
turtle looking
turtle looking

Turtles breathe air. They take only a second or two to stick their head above water, exhale, and inhale. Then they swim for a few minutes until they need another breathe.  They slowly rise to the surface before taking a breath.

The photo below shows the serrated lower jaw, where the sun shines into the turtle’s mouth.

sea turtle head
sea turtle head

The photos were taken with an APS-C camera and a telephoto lens at 400 mm, so the effective focal length is 640 mm. Since the turtle surfaces for only a second or two, you have to focus and set the exposure before the turtle sticks its head up. Time of day is important. There’s more light in the middle of the day, except that sunlight reflecting off the water surface produces glare. I brought a circular polarizing filter to reduce the glare off the water, but I did something stupid and broke the filter before I could use it.

While snorkeling at the Black Rock at Kaanapali, a large turtle with a 3′ long shell swam under us effortlessly. We tried to follow but couldn’t keep up with the turtle for long.

Sunrise at Haleakala

Haleakala is a volcano on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Haleakala means house of the sun in Hawaiian. According to legend, the demigod Maui roped the sun in order to extract a promise from the sun to move slower and thereby make the daylight longer.

The guidebooks and tourism industry tell tourists to visit Haleakala at sunrise. We had never done this, so we decided to try it.

Sunrise in February is around 7:00 am. We left Kaanapali at 3:15, allowing 2.5 hours to drive to the summit and park by 6:00, an hour before sunrise. Parking is limited at the summit. We stopped at the first visitor center to use the restrooms, since the summit has no restrooms.

It’s windy and cold at the summit. To make matters worse, there was a solid bank of clouds below us and no clouds above us, so there were no beautiful red and orange clouds before sunrise. The first photo shows the sun rising from the clouds. The second includes the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island.

Sun emerging from a sea of clouds, Haleakala
Sun emerging from a sea of clouds, Haleakala
sunrise with Mauna Kea on right
sunrise with Mauna Kea on right

The peak at the Haleakala summit 10,023 feet (3,055 m) is called Red Hill in Hawaiian. Below the red cinders are painted by the rising sun.

Haleakala - Red Hill and Science City
Haleakala – Red Hill and Science City

The Haleakala crater is about 11.25 km (7 mi) across, 3.2 km (2 mi) wide, and nearly 800 m (2,600 ft) deep. From the crater visitor’s center, see the cinders sloping down to the crater bottom. Decades ago, I hiked and camped in the crater for four days. The trail down to the crater is called the Sliding Sands Trail. Some parts you take a step and slide down another step, a fast way to go downhill! The easiest way out of the crater is a rocky trail behind the crater wall on the left.

Haleakala crater with ciders
Haleakala crater with ciders

This photo shows the cinder cones on the crater floor. Water has worn away two gaps in the crater walls: the larger one on the left, and another on the far right that feeds streams near Hana.

Cinder cones in the crater
Cinder cones in the crater

The sunrise was not worth getting up at 3:00, driving up the mountain in the dark, and freezing for an hour waiting for the sunrise. But we did this at the beginning of our vacation, while we were still adjusting to the time change from the mainland, so we were waking up early anyway. From our condo we saw the sun set during our week-long vacation.  These sunsets had little color, so perhaps we weren’t so unlucky with our sunrise.

I enjoyed seeing Red Hill and the crater at dawn. Outside the golden hour, Red Hill wouldn’t be so red, and the rocks and cinder cones in the crater would appear flat. Now I’ve seen a sunrise at Haleakala summit, and I don’t wonder about what I’ve missed all these years.