Rays and Whales and Sharks, oh my!

“Um, something just bumped me pretty hard. It didn’t clink like a turtle shell… I think I’m going to kneel so I’ll be more stable.” My board hadn’t been lifted out of the water, but I was knocked off-balance.

Rachel and I had been out on our stand-up surfboards for about an hour, and didn’t mind taking a little rest by kneeling. Suddenly I heard Rachel in a low trembling voice:

“There’s a shark… And it has stripes!!”

Rachel and humpback whales

Rachel and humpback whales

Stripes meant a tiger shark. There are many kinds of sharks around Maui, but only the tiger sharks are reputed to attack people. I looked over to see 10 inches of dorsal fin sticking out of the water. It was a funny yellowish color like parchment paper. It was on the other side of Rachel’s board from me, so I couldn’t see any of its body. Then I saw the tail fin come around—a good 5 or 6 feet behind the dorsal fin! Rachel was on her knees with both hands on her board to keep herself as steady as possible.

“Take its picture!”

“No, I’m too scared to move!”

We watched the shark slowly swim away.

“Why aren’t you freaking out?”

“’Cause you are, and somebody needs to be calm. Besides, if it was going to bite, it already would have and we wouldn’t have seen it first.” What I was really thinking was that Rachel and her board were between me and the 11 foot shark, and it seemed to like her better.

As soon as the shark was gone from sight and we were certain that it wasn’t coming back, Rachel was really wishing she had taken a picture of our friend the tiger shark. He was checking us out in much the same way we were checking him out!

This wasn’t my first unexpected wildlife encounter while on my stand up board. The summer before while paddling downwind along the northern shore of Maui, a large 12 foot ray slapped and grabbed at the front of my board and gave me a serious fright while lifting the nose of my board a few inches out of the water.

Brenda watching a manta ray

Brenda watching a manta ray

On this day’s outing in mid February, the two of us were paddling around on our stand ups. We had paddled out to watch the humpback whales. A few sea kayakers passed by us through the morning also eager to see these amazing creatures.  Approximately 5000 Northern Pacific humpback whales spend every spring in the waters around Hawaii. It is here that they mate and calve. They then migrate back to Alaska to feed. They are baleen whales, and feed on krill and small fish whose food sources (phytoplankton) don’t live in warmer waters. The entire 4-6 month journey to Hawaii and back is done while fasting.

My friend Rachel and I were now about ¼ mile off the coast of the southern part of west Maui. We spent most of our mornings on our days off either surfing or paddling along the coast for exercise and to watch the whale spectacle. We are always careful to not paddle up to any whales, just in their general direction so we can get a closer look at their antics. Males often have fluke-slapping and breaching competitions, likely to impress the ladies. They can be quite dangerous, even breaching on top of each other, so we are careful not to get too close. The baby whales are always splashing and jumping and breaching, seemingly always thrilled to be alive. The moms patiently follow them and nurse them. Baby humpback whales typically drink 50- 100 gallons of milk each day and weigh over one ton. The law for protection of the whales in Hawaii states that no vessel or person may approach within 100 yards by sea (or 1000 feet by air) and we are careful to not paddle any closer. However, as many whale watchers find out, humpback whales can be very curious and will swim up to boats or people at much closer distances.

Manta Ray at Ukumehame

Manta Ray at Ukumehame

The day was overcast and there was no wind at all when we first paddled out, making the entire ocean look as though it was a big flat lake. Without any sun glare, we could easily see every rock and coral head and every little fish along the reef below us. We had already seen a school of six manta rays which swam around and under us, always seeming to play follow- the- leader. It was so clear that I could see the scars along the dorsum of one of the rays and realized that their lineup was always the same; the scarred ray was always the third in the line. The last two rays seemed to challenge for position five and were often more side-by-side, but the first four kept their places at all times. I was able to make out the stripes that are their markings and how the color continues to spiral down the tails. These particular rays are not very big, with wingspans of about 6-8 feet.

After another hour or so of watching the whales (still kneeling just in case the shark returned) we decided to paddle back to shore. The wind had picked up and it had rained on us a bit, but the whales were really active and we could hardly tear ourselves away. We were almost back to the surf break when we saw 3 whales surface, swimming parallel to the beach and coming right for us.

“Where should we go?”

“We can’t go anywhere, they’re right here!”

I pivoted my board to face them and one whale’s back was right in front of me.  The part I could see was the size of a tractor trailer. I started to back-paddle, but realized that the front half of his body had to be directly underneath me. I stared slack-jawed as he continued to dive down and his tail went under right in front of me. I couldn’t feel even a ripple of water being displaced. Just as luck would have it, a local photographer happened to be coming back to shore the same time that we were, but a bit further down the beach. He snapped photos of us and the whales, recording an amazing encounter for all of us. Finally I have some proof of all my fish tales…or is it tails?

Whale tail!

Whale tail!

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