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.

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Expedition Patagonia

My recent travels took me to Patagonia, Chile to Chiloé, the largest island in the Chiloé Archipelago. My goal is to produce a documentary about an aspiring young girl interested in discovering the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale. Currently I am editing all the footage taken during my trip. I hope to convey the importance of girls in science and women in conservation leadership roles, specifically to protect whales and their ocean homes.

We departed Maui late at night and after 3 long flights we arrived at Santiago, the capital of Chile. A relatively short 1.5 hour connecting flight to the province of Puerto Mont, followed by a 60 km car ride to Pargua, followed by a 30 minute ferry crossing of the Chacao Channel to Chiloé. We finally arrived to the principal town of Ancud to pick up supplies. Paved roads turned into gravel and cell phone signals quickly began to fade. It was a pathway into the past, a place without time.

Our final destination was Punihuil, a small community on the west coast of Chiloé. Punihuil is a isolated, but popular, tourist destination famous for its offshore penguin colonies. It is the only place in the world where you see the Humboldt and the Magellanic penguins coexisting and nesting side by side.

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A long journey home

Another terrific whale season is almost complete in Hervey Bay, Australia, as Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team come to the tail end of collecting fluke identification and distribution data that will be compiled with 30 years of research in the area.

Southern hemisphere humpback mothers and calves are the last to be spotted as they complete their annual southward migration to the Antarctic feeding grounds. PWF researchers are assimilating data to take back to our research headquarters on Maui, where photographs and findings will be analyzed.

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Expedition down under

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers arrived this week in Hervey Bay, a quaint community in northern Queensland. For the next few months, I will be documenting research efforts and managing our little shop as humpback whales make their annual migration from the subtropic waters of eastern Australia to their feeding grounds of Antarctica. Stephanie Stack, M.Sc. PWF’s Senior Research Biologist and Research Assistant Laura Behm will be photographing flukes and recording data of daily sightings for ongoing research in the area.

Began in 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia humpback whale research program is the longest running study of this population. The overarching goal of PWF’s research is to advance understanding of humpback whale biology, population status and impacts of human activities on the population. PWF’s Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale ID Catalog is a compilation of 31 seasons of research, combining detailed data on life history, behavior, spatial distribution, and human impacts.

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Promising partnership in Guatemala

Whalewatching continues to grow globally with new markets emerging. Guatemala is the latest country seeking to develop whale watch operations off its Pacific coast focusing on the annual migration of humpback whales that migrate through their waters December through June. The humpbacks are thought to be en route to/from their breeding and calving grounds off Costa Rica, and likely spend their summer months feeding near central California northward to BC, Canada.

Greg Kaufman, founder of Pacific Whale Foundation recently traveled to the small coastal community of Montericco, Guatemala — best known for its 20km- long nature reserve of coast and coastal mangrove wetlands — to speak with tour operators about whalewatching and learn first-hand their challenges and whale observations.

The department of tourism, INGUAT, reached out to Kaufman for advice on this new developing industry. They stressed the importance of wanting to take a scientific approach to cultivate sustainable tourism in the area. Kaufman shared his thoughts on regulation and responsible practices.

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