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Whalewatching with “The Greatest”

Pacific Whale Foundation was founded in 1980, in Makena, Maui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our roots are embedded in credible research studies, backed by effective education and critical conservation programs. Through the years, Pacific Whale Foundation has grown to become “the people’s whale organization.” Each year Pacific Whale Foundation takes nearly 300,000 supporters out on the water to experience whales “face-to-fluke,” or marine life “face-to-fin.” Our supporters come from all regions of the globe, and are of every race, color, creed, religion and political persuasion.

We have worked successfully to bridge the chasm of hard science by bringing scientific findings to the public to comprehend and act upon. We have engaged and enlisted the support of the public in a worthy and winnable cause: to save whales and their ocean home.

During the last three decades I have had some incredible whale experiences at Pacific Whale Foundation. People always ask me “what was the best whalewatching experience you ever had?” or “tell me about your most amazing whale experience.” Having spent thousands of hours on the ocean in the presence of whales, it really is hard to choose just one to single out as “the greatest” whale experience.

Frankly, I hope that experience has yet to happen. It is what drives me to discover, to learn more, and to seek out new venues to study whales. My experiences with ‘Migaloo’, the only all-white humpback whale in the world have been incredible and awe-inspiring. So too has been the time I spent underwater with humpback whales – most notably the time a curious calf gathered me in his pec fins and tried to carry me down to his waiting mother, literally taking my breath away.

When I reflect on my experiences with the whales, however, it is really my shared experiences watching whales with people I recall most fondly. In 1981, when we were a fledgling organization, 112 fourth graders from Kihei Elementary raised $3,800 (all in quarters!) for our research efforts. That whalewatch from Ma’alaea Harbor with those kids (whose kids are now adults going on whalewatches with Pacific Whale Foundation with their kids) will forever live fresh in my memory.

There have been hundreds of similar experiences that motivate and remind me of how sound and just our mission is. Last evening, Ocean Voyager’s sunset whalewatch, was another poignant reminder. It was a perfect evening for a whalewatch — light winds, clear skies, calm seas, plenty of whales, a perfect sunset and a glorious full moon. A picture perfect whalewatch experienced by myself and 92 other passengers, including “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, and his dear friend, singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson.

I was 9 years old and glued to the radio and cheered wildly as Ali upset Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship at age 22. “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” Ali shouted after winning.

I recall the “Fight of the Century,” where he lost to Fraser, the “Rumble in the Jungle” with Foreman, the “Thrilla in Manilla” rematch with Fraser, and his loss and then subsequent win over Spinks to become the three-time heavy weight boxing champ. All legendary and exemplary of what an amazing athlete Ali was.

But where Ali left an indelible mark on me was when he fought with his words and not his fists. He asserted his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War by saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” In June 1967 he was found guilty of refusing induction into the armed forces by the US Justice Department. His passport was revoked and he was stripped of his boxing association title, which effectively banned him from boxing for 3.5 years. Despite this imposed hardship he remained steadfast, and focused his efforts instead on religious and humanitarian issues.

In June 1971, the US Supreme Court found that his objection to the draft was justifiable based on his religious beliefs, and overturned Ali’s conviction. I recall applauding that decision and feeling embolden by his actions – you CAN stand for what you believe in, and win.

He became one of the most recognizable individuals in the world, and he used his notoriety to foster good for others. He has been instrumental in providing over 232 million meals to the world’s hungry. Traveling across continents, he has hand-delivered food and medical supplies to children in Cote
D’Ivoire,Indonesia, Mexico, and Morocco, among other countries.

In 2005 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our highest civil award. The United Nations recognized him as a Messenger of Peace from 1998-2008 for his work in developing nations. As a leader he traveled the world, most notably securing the release of 15 US hostages during the first Gulf War. He was also on hand to meet Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison.

And last night I was blessed and privileged to show “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, whales for the first time in his life. In fact, his family told me in all his travels around the world this was to be Ali’s first venture on to the ocean — he had never been at sea.

What a show it was! A mother, calf and escort slowly approached Ocean Voyager and glided carelessly and gracefully along our starboard side. With Muhammad standing at the rail, the newborn calf repeatedly raised its pectoral fins and fanned the evening air, as if to bid “aloha” to all onboard. In all we observed 8 different pods, all lolling about in a becalmed Ma’alaea Bay.

As we headed to port, an emerging full moon cast streaking moonlight upon the water’s surface, when a pod of seven whales broke the surface seemingly bidding the Greatest a fond aloha and farewell.

After the passengers disembarked I was invited to sit with Muhammad, chat and take photos. I gave him a copy of my book “Hawaii’s Humpback Whales: The Long Journey Back,” which fascinated him. The rest of the crew and staff joined us for some photos.

Sitting beside him, I felt the need to confess my admiration of his athleticism and the positive influence his life’s work has had on me.

I leaned close to him and said: “I know you may have heard this many times before, but I want to let you know that you were an amazing athlete. Watching you box was magical. But more importantly it was your quick wit, your words, deeds and dedication to a cause that impressed me the most. Your willingness to fight with your words and do good with your fame has been an inspiration to me and motivated me to do more with my life. Thank you.”

Despite Ali’s battle with Parkinson’s, he turned to me, lifted his head and placed his face close to mine, our noses nearly touching. His eyes lit up as he stared into me. For a moment I felt frozen in time: I was seeing the same Ali glare that Liston, Fraser, Foreman, and Spinks endured. Then his eyes softened and a smile broke on his face, just like when he used to riff with the late Howard Cosell, and he raised his hand clenched tightly into that once powerful fist and then drawing me near, he opened that ominous, famous hand and offered to shake my hand in gratitude. Relief, joy and respect flooded through me.

As I escorted him to his car, he asked for my book to read. After he was buckled in, he began patiently turning the pages and carefully examining the photos and illustrations. He seemed mesmerized by the whales, unable to turn away his gaze.

“He listened to every word you said today during your narration of the whalewatch. He really enjoyed himself. This is something he will never forget,” Mr. Kristofferson said.

Nor will I.

Gregory D. Kaufman
President & Founder, Pacific Whale Foundation

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