I imagine you will want to call me a courageous adventurer when I tell you how I recently encountered an actual live whale in person.
In fact, I encountered a group of whales, called a “pod,” or, sometimes, “a group of whales.”
I encountered this particular pod off the coast of Maui, which is one of the major Hawaiian Islands (the other ones are Oahu, The Big Island, Kawahoolele, The Medium Island, Kawahalanakanalekaelele, The Other Medium Island, Keleleakahanenen-enenehawahinenene and Guam).
Maui is a superb place to go and soak up the wonderful Hawaiian culture at the rate of 52,000 calories per day, which is what my wife and I were doing when we decided we’d better go encounter some whales while there was still a boat in the Hawaiian Islands capable of carrying our weight.
Each winter, a large number, or “bunch,” of North Pacific humpback whales swim all the way down to Maui from Alaska, a distance of thousands of miles.
Why do they make this difficult journey? For the same reason athletes compete, actors perform, singers sing, and politicians run for high office: They want to have sex.
There is wild whale sex going on in the water around Maui, accompanied by an underwater soundtrack of cool, spacelike whale noises, including a song the males sing to attract the females. The fascinating thing is, all the male humpback whales sing the same song: “My Way.”
No, I’m kidding. If they sang that, the females would deliberately beach themselves. But male whales really do all sing the same song, and it changes from time to time, and all the males, all over the world, somehow learn the changes. (Maybe they’re on the Internet.)
Evidently the song is effective, because a lot of mating goes on around Maui.
Afterward, the male whale swims off in a carefree manner, leaving the female to be pregnant for a year, at the end of which she gives birth, all alone, without anesthetic, to a baby whale the size of a Toyota Corolla. If, during the birth, the male happens to swim past, singing his song, “Mr. Stud of the Sea,” I bet the female gives him a good whack with her 15-foot pectoral fin.
But the real threat to whales is whaling, which has endangered many whale species. This is why I say to young people: If you’re ever in school or at the mall, and somebody in your peer group whispers to you, “Pssst … Wanna go whaling?” you should “just say no.” Also you should tell your congressperson you favor the 30-day cooling-off period on the purchase of harpoons.
Or you can support the Pacific Whale Foundation (101 North Kihei Road, Kihei, Maui, HI 96753), which is the nonprofit outfit that operates the boat that took us whale-watching.
I will admit I was a teensy bit nervous about boating in whale-intensive waters because of my memories of “Moby Dick,” which is about Captain Ahab, played in the movie by Gregory Peck, who looks just like Abraham Lincoln but with fewer legs.
Ahab wants to kill this giant white whale, played in the movie by Marlon Brando, but in the end, Marlon tips over the entire boat and everybody dies except the narrator. (In high school, when I had to read “Moby Dick,” which is 87 million pages long, I found myself wishing that the narrator had also died.)
But we boldly set out on the Pacific Whale Foundation boat, along with about 15 other tourists (also known as a “waist-pack” of tourists) and started looking for humpback whales. You’d think they’d be easy to find, being as how they weigh up to 80,000 pounds - more than Edward Kennedy and Newt Gingrich COMBINED - but for a while we didn’t see anything.
And then, after almost an hour, people started shouting, and I looked out where they were pointing, and I saw - this was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life - nothing. I’m one of those people who, when there’s a major natural spectacle everybody else can see, I can’t see it. I would not have seen Halley’s Comet if it had passed through my living room.
But finally, after several anxious minutes of scanning the ocean, I heard a loud whooshing noise and saw a big puff go shooting into the air, and suddenly, there it was, in plain view: Old Faithful!
No, it was a whale, and it was very large. And then there were more puffs and more whales, forming a four-whale pod consisting of a mother, her baby and two male “escort” whales trying to get the female’s attention, probably sweet-talking her in whale language (“Are those barnacles new? They look terrific!”).
The whales swam slowly, gracefully, past our boat for several minutes, surfacing, puffing, diving, surfacing. They came pretty close to us, but it was never scary.
It was - and here I will quote Herman Melville - very cool. We could have watched the whales for hours, but before long we had to leave.
For just as the humpbacks would soon return to the Alaskan feeding grounds, where they eat up to a ton of raw fish per day, so did we have to get back to the hotel for dinner.
We had sushi, but nowhere near a ton. At least not apiece.