My First Whale Sighting Was In The Desert

Oddly enough, my fascination with humpback whales began in the desert. The year was 1970 and I was a 12 year old living with my mom in Tucson, Arizona. A bio-acoustician by the name of Roger Payne used what was cutting edge technology at the time to record humpbacks singing and then put those songs on rotating vinyl for all of us to enjoy.

I discovered the record during one of my trips to the public library. The hypnotic call of whales was a far cry from my usual efforts to blow the wax out of my ears with rock music played over the headphones. The librarians there were gentle with me, but they would not allow me to drum along on the counter to such delightful songs as “Earschplittenloudenboomer” by Steppenwolf. We had a stereo at home, but there was no way mom was going to allow the likes of Steppenwolf to be played on it. Additionally, the sound from our stereo cabinet paled in comparison to the sonic bliss of the cranked up headphones available at the library.

As I looked through the albums one day after school the picture of a humpback in full flight caught my attention. What? Whales sing - who knew? I sat down and was transported to a place far from the dry Arizona desert. Using the magic of hydrophones, microphones designed to be used under water, Dr. Payne took me underneath the ocean to the world of singing giant mammals. It was amazing. A totally drug-free psychedelic experience. Somehow I was able to persuade my mom that we had to have a copy at home. I am happy to relate that once mom listened to it, she was as captivated as I and we listened to it over and over again.

Hang on while we leap 43 years ahead to 2013. My sister Vicki and her husband Tom had been making the case for a visit to Hawaii for a couple of years. Tom sells bridges, (yes, that is a true statement), and he covers the western part of the country which includes Hawaii, so he and Vic are there one or more times a year. They know all the cool places to see and how to get the most bang for your traveling buck. Our plans included being on Maui for four days during prime time for whale watching.

Not only did Vic fix us up with a wonderful place to stay on Maui, but we were within walking distance of the Pacific Whale Foundation. As soon as we arrived, we found out the particulars and made arrangements for a whale watching ride on one of their boats that included the opportunity to snorkel in two different locations.

First glimpses of whales came from the vantage point.
Over the years I have watched untold hours of documentaries about the oceans and whales. Even the most artfully done video work seen on a modern big screen from the comfort of our living room is a bland rendering compared with actually seeing the unbelievable power and grace of a humpback weighing several tons shooting up out of the sea in the throes of a cetacean happy dance. I first glimpsed the wonder of breaching humpbacks from the 8th floor balcony of our hotel on Oahu. We got closer to them on Maui because we were on the ground floor about 15 yards from the ocean. We could sit on our porch with breakfast and be amazed by the constant leaping and splashing. A recording of our comments would remind you of what you typically hear at fireworks - lots of “ohhh”, “ahhhh”, “look over there”, and "didja see THAT one?"

Even that wonderfulness was eclipsed when we boarded the Pacific Whale Foundation boat and headed across the bay to Molokini Crater to snorkel. Whales to the left - whales to the right. Off the bow - no, look astern. There are two over there - wait, a pod with four males swimming after a female. If you are going to whale watch in the Ma'alaea Harbor you might want to start your day by warming up the muscles in your neck because your head will be swiveling non-stop. As we cruised across the harbor to our snorkeling destination, there was seemingly no end to the dancing whales.

Doing the Happy Dance!
The Molokini Crater is a crescent shaped out cropping that provides a wonderful opportunity to swim with a huge assortment of tropical fish. I was certified to scuba dive in 1975, but had never really done much with it. My snorkeling efforts, save for a couple days in Florida, were mostly done in lakes in Michigan. Most of our lakes are silt bottom, so the visibility is very limited. Even the relatively clear waters of Lakes Michigan or Charlevoix are nothing like what I experienced going off the back of the boat at Molokini.

The PWF tour will fill your head with as much knowledge about humpbacks, sea turtles, and the long list of tropical fish one might encounter as you can handle. They have a bevy of certified naturalists on board who love to share information and answer questions. As we traversed the harbor, those of us who wanted to go under the water were fitted with a wet suit top, fins, mask and snorkel. There were opportunities on board to learn to snorkel and placards were passed around featuring pictures of all the varieties of fish known to frequent the area.

These are Humuhumu-eleele.

I eased off the back of the boat face down and found myself floating above a nice sized school of Humuhumu-eleele (aka Black Durgeon Triggerfish). My breathing closely resembled that of a steam shovel - my heart was pounding as I found myself completely out of my element and in the company of several score of triggerfish. It was so gorgeous and over the top, that I forgot to breathe until my lungs demanded oxygen. Tom and Vic, both of whom are veterans of such events, swam on while I just floated - completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the fish and the clear waters gently moving back and forth over the coral and rocks.

The time at Molikini was amazing. I swam back to the boat to tell Julie how incredible it was, but stayed in the water until the crew called us back. I felt like a kid - I wanted to shout, “Please, just five more minutes?" FYI - there are PWF staff in kayaks surrounding the group as you swim. They serve a dual purpose - they keep their eyes peeled for any potential trouble and they can answer your questions right there in the water.

My permagrin was in full effect when I rinsed off and took my seat on the boat for the ride over to Turtle Arches. I looked at a laminated picture of all the fish in the area and tried to figure out just how many different ones I had seen and swum with. My count was highly inaccurate because the experience was so fantastic and mind blowing, I was not checking anything I saw against a mental chart of fish. That said, I easily saw more than a dozen varieties.

A resident of Turtle Arches
As we got underway, the captain explained that our next stop would afford us the opportunity to get up close and personal with sea turtles. Once again, the message “look, but do NOT touch” was expressed. This applied not only to the turtles, but to the coral as well. One finger probing a piece of living coral is not a big deal, but if that touch is multiplied day after day then coral will die. The friendly ocean experts let us know that a violation of the "no touch" rule could result in the loss of snorkeling privileges and possibly a fine or even an arrest. Roger, Wilco!

After my time in the water at Molikini, I was eager to swim with the turtles. I do not have the words to describe my first encounter with a big turtle under the water. No superlative in my vocabulary is sufficient.  The turtle was about 5 feet below the surface and I slowly kicked my way over and looked him(?) in the eyes. The turtle was completely comfortable with my presence, gave me a once over and drifted nonchalantly down to the bottom. I watched completely entranced until I needed to surface for air.

I excitedly related my experience to a PWF staffer in a kayak. My thoughts of following my new found friend to the bottom evaporated when she explained that the turtles could remain submerged for as long as 45 minutes - just a wee bit beyond my ability.

My comfort level swimming underwater increased by the moment and our time at Turtle Arches flew by. I have no idea of the total number of turtles I saw, but I can tell you that my appreciation and admiration for them went through the roof. As I write this, the hair on my arms in tingling at the memory. As we returned to port, we were treated to more whale sightings.

Eco-tourism is a big thing these days. Thank god for that. One would have to have a pretty hard heart and a total lack of appreciation for other species in order to not feel protective of whales, fish, and sea turtles after spending time with them in their natural habitat. The Pacific Whale Foundation operates on the hope that the more you and I know about the wonders of the sea, the more we will be willing to protect them in any way we can.

My curiosity with the singing giants of the sea was ignited in a library in the middle of the Sonoran desert in 1970. My affection and fascination came to fruition decades later thanks to Vic and Tom giving me the push I needed to travel to Hawaii. My five hour trip with the Pacific Whale Foundation was the most wonderful capstone I could have asked for.

Cliff and Julie Claire DeVoe have a jewelry store in Lowell, MI. Chimera Design has been there since 2002. They pride themselves on custom work. You can take a peek here:

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