What a great feeling it was one day recently to pull out of Lahaina Harbor on Ocean Discovery, the Pacific Whale Foundation catamaran, leaving cares behind on a whale watch. Everyone was happy as we passed through the narrow channel, perilously close to the reef, in search of our great annual cetacean visitors.
It was a gorgeous day with glassy sea and perfect visibility.
We headed south after a school of spinner dolphins that cleaved before the bow, hundreds of them leaping and undulating, swimming in sync, breaking the surface of the glittering blue ocean.
A deep sigh escaped from me. What a great day.
Serena Neff, who combines scientific knowledge with a flair for storytelling, was our naturalist. Female whales make the 5,000-mile journey from Alaska to Hawaii for two reasons: to give birth and to mate. Gestation takes 11 months, so when they return - some sit a season out - they've got one thing or the other on their minds. The shallow waters of the islands forming Maui Nui, no more than 250 feet deep, are ideal for the activities.
With environmental protection the humpback whales have increased from the 1,000 counted in 1960 to the 22,000 today, still endangered but making a nice comeback. "However, we estimate there should be 50,000 in the Pacific if we hadn't hunted for whales," Serena said.
Our bustling, little tourist town of Lahaina, of course, played a role in that tragedy. In 1846, a year when the whaling fleet made 429 visits, up from 73 in 1841, the Rev. Dwight Baldwin wrote with satisfaction of the business the whaling trade brought to town. It raised the standard of living so much that some Hawaiians in his congregation were newly able to afford tables and chairs, and it gave him pleasure to count them.
"Lahaina is not the quiet place it once was," he observed.
Hawaii became the center of the whaling trade in the Pacific after sperm whale grounds were found off Japan two decades before, particularly when the Tokugawa Shogunate closed Japan to Western ships. The discovery of new whaling grounds in the Okhotsk, Bering and Anadir seas south of Alaska, and north of the Bering Strait in the Arctic Ocean, marked the heyday of whaling in Hawaii that lasted until 1860.
Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the whalers arrived in Hawaiian ports to reprovision and recruit, and no port was more popular than Lahaina.
No pilot was needed. Sailing vessels could arrive and depart in the open roadstead with any wind that blew, unlike the harbor at Honolulu where ships inside the reef were bound to wait for a favorable breeze.
No ship had ever been lost in Lahaina from a gale. Boats could slip to the lee of the offshore islands and wait out a storm, whereas a ship outside the reef at Honolulu could wreck itself in a blow.
The long anchorage at Lahaina had good holding ground and could accommodate hundreds of ships, so many it was said that in high season one could walk easily from deck to deck. The anchorage extended 10 miles along the shore from seven fathoms near the reef to 25 fathoms three miles out. The best spot was south of town in 15 fathoms opposite Baldwin's Waine'e Church (now Waiola Church near Shaw Street).
A hundred-and-seventy years later, Lahaina is still capitalizing on the whales, but it feels good to be part of their recovery.
Serena turned our attention to a 15-foot-long fin slapping the water not far away. "This whale on the surface slapping around, maybe she's trying to get attention, letting the males know she wants to mate," she suggested.
Dolphins are family-based and highly social, but whales are anti-social. If you see two 40-foot-long grown whales together, usually one is a female and the other a male. If you see three, it's usually two beaux vying for her attention.
Our female made a languorous dive and then performed what those in the trade call a "Maui mugging" - she broke the 100-yard distance that regulations require be maintained between watchers and watched.
Capt. Bryson Oliveira cut the engines and people rushed to the rail as our whale cruised the surface, stately and slow, her small dorsal fin just visible. Then she made a trumpeting sound and rolled on her belly.
A powerful male escort materialized thrillingly beside her. There was another trumpeting sound, a sign of aggression.
Then that fin came out of the water again, signifying, according to Serena, "Come on, let's do it."
We never knew what happened. Our whales departed leisurely side by side, calm, majestic.
It was a sexy trip, I observed when we landed. A real Valentine's Day story. "Very romantic," Serena agreed.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.