Scientists Search for Humpback Whales off Coast of Maui

David Mattila
David Mattila
Ed Lyman
Ed Lyman

MAALAEA, Maui (KHNL) -- The shallow banks surrounding our islands create a gigantic living laboratory for scientists who study humpback whales.

In this, Earth and Sea Project report, we take an exclusive trip on a NOAA whale research vessel.  Despite their massive size, searching for humpbacks takes time, patience and a special eye.

During the winter these researchers from the "Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary" set out in search of the mighty humpback.

"The research we're doing today is related to our attempts to understand human impacts on whales and to develop techniques for assessing their health," said David Mattila, a whale research scientist.

On this bright and calm day in March, the team motors out of Maalaea Boat Harbor on Maui in search of competitive groups--that's a female and multiple males traveling with her.

"What we need is either whales that are stationary, curious or traveling in a very predictable path, so we can slip in and get pictures of them as they go by," said Mattila.

They plan to take surface shots and then underwater shots to calibrate and compare what they see.

They're looking for scars or wounds that are evidence of what the scientists call entanglements as well as information about humpback behavior and populations.

"Basically get flank shots," said Ed Lyman with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. "Try to get a whole length away and just get a nice right side then left side flank shot for star analysis--as David mentioned compare that to what you get topside."

With an estimated 10,000 humpbacks now migrating to Hawaii from Alaska each winter mating season, you'd imagine they'd always be easy to spot.

But it's a big ocean and they swim free and wide. On this day, a siting here and there and one whale provides a tail slap show.

"He was slapping his tail," said Mattila. "Looked like a male. We were kind of wondering why?"

The government is so protective of these massive creatures and their sanctuary that even its own scientists have to have permits to photograph them up close.

For several hours, the boat and its crew travel the channels off Maui's west coast looking for signs of a competitive group.

Finally, in nearly 300-feet of water between Lanai and Maui, a group of eight surfaces.

"It's exhilarating. I've been doing it a couple of years now," said Lyman. "They're big animals. Majestic and you're in their world."

"Hawaii is the birthplace of especially the study of behavior of humpbacks," Mattila said. "So much has been done here. For scientists, it's a great lab because it has predictable whales that come here every winter."

Ed and Nancy make a half dozen quick dives to videotape the fast moving competitive group.

This team feels fortunate to study humpbacks, because they show so much of their behavior at or near the surface and they tend to concentrate along coastlines.

The group you just saw in this earth and sea project report, was among the last to be spotted and photographed this whale season.

The researchers will be back at it, in December when the humpbacks begin making their 3000-mile long trek from Alaska back to Hawaii.