As the first humpbacks arrive back in Maui, I find myself pining over photos of the latest encounters published by my friends. Last winter I had the privilege of learning about these majestic creatures while seeing them every single day. To watch a whale breach just a few feet from our boat was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Leading whale-watching tours on beautiful sailboats made it even more special. There were times when I looked around and couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to do something I was so passionate about.
Here are some of the “lies” that I told in the name of educating people.
1. THE LIE: Male humpbacks are known for their beautiful singing voices.
THE TRUTH: While the whale song is absolutely a unique and defining characteristic for male humpbacks, these whales do not have vocal chords – so they don’t have voices. They produce their song by moving pockets of air through their nasal cavities. The humpback whale song is about 20 minutes in length, and they all sing the same tune. Each year, the song changes slightly and all of the whales make the adjustment.
2. THE LIE: Humpback whales fast in the mating/breeding grounds because it’s too expensive to eat in Hawaii.
THE TRUTH: While it’s true that they don’t eat while in Hawaii, this is just a cute oversimplification that tourists can relate to. The North Pacific humpbacks feed on krill and other small baitfish found primarily in the nutrient-rich colder waters near Alaska. They are able to go without eating for their entire stay in the mating and birthing grounds of Hawaii. Including travel to and from Alaska, these whales can be without food for up to four months! It is not worth their energy to attempt to gather the comparatively small bait balls found in the warm Hawaiian waters, so they’ve adapted to live off their blubber reserve.
3. THE LIE: In the mating grounds, the male to female ratio is about 3:1 – which is about the same odds as a Lahaina Bar on a Friday.
THE TRUTH: This lie may sound like an exaggeration, but if anything it underestimates the situation. Have you been to the bars in Lahaina on Friday? At times it’s more like fifteen guys for every one girl.
4. THE LIE: The whale’s tongue is as big as a Volkswagen Beetle and their throats are only the size of a volleyball.
THE TRUTH: As it turns out, their throats are potentially even smaller than we suspected – closer to the size of a grapefruit! And somehow, these immense creatures consume up to 1.5 tons of food per day in the feeding grounds. They do this by corralling bait into tight balls, using bubbles from their blowholes. They then lunge, taking in mouthfuls of water and fish. Using their tongues to push the water out, their baleen plates filter the food down into their tiny throats. I guess this means we don’t have to worry about any Jonah situations – you’re not likely to end up swallowed!
5. THE LIE: The whales jump out of the water every time they hit a hot spot in between the volcanic islands.
THE TRUTH: Ok, this is another terrible joke! Any time you hear a whale naturalist try to explain breaching behavior, they’re not lying, but they’re merely guessing. One of the most fascinating aspects of studying humpback whales is realizing how little we actually know about them. These guys are super private. Researchers cannot scuba dive with them because they view bubbles as a sign of aggression. There has never been a documented birth or mating, and many of their behaviors are not fully understood. Research indicates that they may breach because they are trying to clean themselves, to signal to other whales, to get a full aerial view of their surroundings and occasionally as a sign of aggression – but none of these theories are proven or predictable. One thing that we know for certain is that the calves will breach many times in order to build up muscle mass for their return trip to Alaska.
6. THE LIE: Sure, that’s the mommy and daddy with the baby.
THE TRUTH: We often see groups of three whales: a male, female and a calf. The female stays with her calf for the first year of its life, but the male with the pair is almost certainly not the father. This character is called a male escort and he stays with the two for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours hoping to mate with mom. After explaining this to a group on the boat, a little girl didn’t quite grasp the concept, “Excuse me, Miss Liz, that’s the mommy and daddy right?” she asked me. With a wink and nod from her parents, I went with it. Would you want to explain to a 6 year old that female humpbacks mate with many, many partners, many times in order to ensure that they’re pregnant before heading back north?
7. THE LIE: Oh hey look, it’s Charles!
THE TRUTH: With an estimated 12,000 whales coming through the Hawaiian Islands over the course of six months, it’s hard to get personal enough to identify and name the individual whales! While some Orca specialists get to know their local animals based on the familial pods and markings – it is difficult to achieve the same familiarity with the more solitary humpbacks. Also, their identifying markings are located on the underside of their flukes (or tail fins) so unless we get an upside-down wave with an especially unique pattern, it’s hard to tell who’s who.
8. THE LIE: The whales come to Hawaii for mating because they know about the honeymoon discounts.
THE TRUTH: Hardy, har, har! Actually, science is not 100% clear on this one. We know that warm water is absolutely essential for the survival of calves – as they are born without any blubber, but we’re not sure why these animals come south for mating. The best theory that I have heard suggests that this is another type of test for the males. They must prove that they can survive fasting, swimming 3,000 miles, singing their songs on repeat while holding their breath, and competing with other males in order to demonstrate that they are healthy enough to produce strong offspring. Meanwhile the guys I meet complain about lengthy tinder conversations.
9. THE LIE: Don’t worry; they’re not hurting each other!
THE TRUTH: I had a small boy who was very upset at the idea that males in competition groups were actually inflicting pain on one another. Well, the truth is, they are. Male competition groups can get very violent – but it’s more of a wrestling match than a fight to the death. Still, one of the most effective ways of identifying the sex of the whale is to note the scars on it’s back. Males will have deep cuts, often still bloody in the mating grounds.
10. THE LIE: This is the best tour we’ve had all day, we didn’t see anything on the last one!
THE TRUTH: This is the number one lie that all whale watching tour guides will tell you. Sure, it’s true sometimes but definitely not every time! You can’t hold it against us; we just want to make you feel that you’re getting the best possible experience and it’s all out of our hands!
Being a whale watching tour guide is a bit like being a weatherman whose pay depends on sunshine. We cannot control what you get but are usually tipped based on the whale’s performance. If you go on a whale watching tour and the guides make you laugh, or teach you something new, make sure to throw them a few extra dollars. No matter what, the people guiding whale watching tours are out there because they love it. Occasionally we use some white lies to emphasize our points, but nobody can deny that it’s coming from the best possible place: a desire to share something we are so passionate about!