Naka Nathaniel: The Mystery Of Whales - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch NYTimes.com, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at nnathaniel@civilbeat.org.

Being in a place where you need to worry about whales means you’re in an awe-inspiring space.

It was an hour before sunrise and it was overcast, the six-person outrigger was running quietly north out of Kawaihae and the harbor lights were waning. In the pitch black, the only thing you could hear was the droplets being flicked from the black carbon fiber blades.

Then the water exploded nearby.

A humpback had breached nearby, but it was near impossible to tell where it was.

The whale breached again and we picked up the pace. We were now motivated to move.  

As we paddled away, I had two thoughts in my mind. First thought: The whale-like creatures that jump on enemy ships in the new Avatar movie. Second thought: The opening scene in Tom Mustill’s book, “How to Speak Whale,” where he miraculously survives being landed on by a 45-ton breaching humpback. 

As thoughts of humpbacks thudded in my head, I’m also glad I hadn’t yet spoken to a pair of whale scientists. If I was aware of what they’d tell me, I’d have found us a very loud outboard motor.

Chris Gabriele has been studying humpbacks in Hawaii since the late 1980s. Her organization, the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium, has been counting cetaceans in the waters off Kohala for decades.

Last Sunday morning, on the makai side of Akoni Pule highway, I joined them as they conducted their regular count. It was auspiciously World Whale Day.  

A metal spike in the ground marks where the surveyor’s tripod and theodolite is stationed for each counting period. I was allowed to join them as long as I adhered to one rule: I wasn’t allowed to say if I saw a whale. There was only one designated observer on the six-person team permitted to call out if a whale was seen. It’s a hard rule to follow. Yelling out and whale spotting are immutably inseparable. 

Just before Gabriele’s team began counting, my crew mates passed just below the observation site and they accidentally passed over the top of a calf. The encounter disrupted their rhythm since they were afraid of poking the baby humpback with their paddles. 

Besides charting the marine mammals, the HMMC team also logs the vessels passing by, including planes and helicopters. They rate each vessel by its estimated noise, from zero to three.

“Every motor vessel makes noise in the water and the whales can hear it. However, canoes are silent,” Gabriele says. “They’re zeros. The whales don’t know you’re there.” 

After the canoe passed, a humpback breached in their wake. Gabriele said that humpback breaching is like a social punctuation mark. It’s a way of humpbacks “shouting” that they’re on the scene. The amount of energy needed to defy gravity is enormous and they aren’t looking where they’re landing.

Craig Matkin, who I regularly paddle with, specializes in killer whales or orcas and told me, “Humpbacks in Hawaii can be completely caught up in their social interactions and could be quite oblivious to the vessels around them.”

Gabriele and Matkin are both based in Alaska and agree that the fascination with whales is akin to the enthralling nature of bear stories. 

On a reporting trip I made to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 20 years ago, what most interested our audience was bears. Any bear story garnered immediate attention.

My favorite is from Walt Audi, a legendary bush pilot. When he saw bear spray on our belts he gave this advice: “When you see the bear, get your spray ready, but don’t use it. Wait for the bear to get closer. Wait until the bear is so close that you can feel its breath on your face, then take the canister, aim it at your face and spray. You’ll howl and scream so loudly that the bear will be frightened and run away. That’s how you use bear spray.” 

I can’t help but make the comparison with bears in Alaska and whales here off the Big Island. 

When I write to my best friend, Mike, he’s always craving more stories about whales. Whales are his jam. “Oh man,” he wrote. “Lava above, whales below.”

I’ve written to him about how the competitive paddling crews keep their focus and don’t mention any side-eye glances at cetaceans until they are back on land. The flip-side are the recreational crews. When the kupuna canoe club out of Kawaihae sees a spout and a half-dozen canoes suddenly turn and give chase. Seeing the whales inevitably slip away, it’s hard for me to understand how whalers in the age of sail were successful. 

After I wrote that to Mike, he responded, “I direct you to Melville and his descriptions of the oceans in those long ago times. Literally thick with whales, stacked a mile deep. If you got a harpoon in the water, it was very likely you’d hit an animal. (‘Moby Dick’s’ Chapter 87, The Grand Armada,) is a heartbreaking section of the book.”

Susan Rickards and Adam Frankel of the Hawaiian Marine Mammal Consortium chart whale and vessel activity off the Kohola Coast. Frankel has been counting whales from this site since 1985. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

When Gabriele and her team first started their whale count in 1985, the humpback population in the North Pacific was about 1,500 whales. Thanks to the moratorium on commercial whaling of humpbacks in 1966, the population bounced back to over 20,000 by 2006, several years before “The Blob,” a nearly cataclysmic event nearly a decade ago that has been attributed to human-caused climate change.

The Blob” was a persistent high pressure system that sat over the Northern Pacific from 2013 to 2016 and created a marine layer that depleted the main sources of food for the humpbacks.

From 2001 to 2015, the HMMC team calculated a birth rate of 6.5% or one calf for every 15 whales. Then, she said, “in the depths of the heat wave, and that was in 2016, we saw our lowest calving rate, and that was 1.3% or one calf for every 80 whales. And that was so profound that everybody everywhere in Hawaii was talking about it.” 

Last year, she said the rate was 4.5% or one calf for every 22 whales. She worries that this might be the new normal, and that the days of 6.5% birth rates are over.

Gabriele says humans have imbalanced the system with our emissions. Thankfully, humpbacks don’t eat while they’re in Hawaii’s waters. They don’t have to worry about the run-off from overgrazed lands harming their food source. However, the volume of fishing debris found inside a sperm whale that washed ashore on Kauai was tragic.

We are fortunate to enjoy the whale parade. Humpbacks are here to give birth and mate before the 30-day journey back to Alaska. A baby born here will double in size to nearly 30 feet by the time it makes it to Alaska. 

Being in a place where you need to worry about whales means you’re in an awe-inspiring space.

In her book, “The Breath of a Whale,” Leigh Calvez writes ”that whales inspired goodwill in people.” 

Matkin likes that notion.

“There’s something about the mystery of whales that brings out our better selves. When there’s something beyond our conception, that really wows us,” he said. 

I’m curious to hear other whale stories. Please share them in the comments below. Oh, and if you have bear stories, I’d love to hear them too.


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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch NYTimes.com, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at nnathaniel@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

A few years ago while paddle board surfing at Makaha, I saw a small splash appear on the horizon. I thought it was perhaps a spinner dolphin jumping about. I paddled further out waiting in anticipation of set waves that were surely about to appear. Then I saw something circle me a few yards away. I thought the worst. Then it blew its spout. It was a baby whale no more than ten feet in length. I watched enthralled for a minute but then suddenly, the whole ocean turned turquoise around me as a huge mother humpback rose like a phoenix from the depths no more than ten feet beneath me. I paddled slowly, quietly, respectfully away from the leviathan feeling the quickness my beating heart .

oldsurfa · 7 months ago

lovely piece

marya · 7 months ago

Junior year in college, I read Roger Payne's seminal work on cetaceans- Among Whales. He's now on the board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I'm sure the science has advanced much since then. Bottom line: we don't know what we don't know, just like Avatar. Be at peace with other creatures, not killing them by the millions and hundreds of millions as if at war.

luckyd · 7 months ago

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