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Whale Tales and ‘whale soup’

By Staff | Mar 12, 2015

Dr. Meagan Jones-Gray, whale researcher and co-founder of Whale Trust Maui, poses in front of one of the whale videos that help support research.

LAHAINA – “It is whale soup out here,” beamed Capt. Jung of the Hawaii Ocean Project. The captain led a recent whale watch for Whale Trust Maui, the pioneering group whose members have taught us more about whale behavior in the past 20 years than what was learned in the last 200.

As you might guess, considering the abundance of our annual visitors, Lahaina and the channel offshore have become the world capital of whale research. The reason? Abundant humpback whales and clear, shallow water.

Whale Trust Maui brought a dozen or more of the world’s greatest researchers to the Maui Theatre last month for two days of extensive talk story sessions that turned this columnist from a detached observer of these magnificent creatures into an outright fan.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Marsha Green said between sessions, “I mentioned the words ‘save the whales’ to my grandmother. She asked me what had I been smoking. Today you can use that phrase anywhere in the world, and people will know what you are talking about.”

The reason, she said, is one word: “media.”

Cinema photographers that have produced films and photographers like Charles “Flip” Nicklin, who has had 20 photo spreads in National Geographic and two IMAX films (the latest debuts soon on the Mainland), have turned these

mysterious creatures – the largest on Earth, whose tails are the largest muscles in the animal kingdom – into familiar bringers of joy.

Their work, celebrated in the media, has also helped support an unprecedented amount of whale research.

The researchers – many of whom are frequent visitors to Maui – are just like you and me… sort of, anyway. On research vessels, Dr. Meagan Jones-Gray, a marine biologist who is one of the four founders and the executive director of Whale Trust, looks like one of the crew with her long blonde hair spun into a ponytail. Dressed up, to open the talk story session, she could easily pass for a movie star. Her specialty when not teaching at U.H. Kailua is studying female whales.

Whale Trust Co-founder Dr. Jim Darling, a biologist, has been studying the behavior and communication skills of humpbacks in Maui for 30 years. He frequently works with the well-known Nicklin.

Co-founder Nicklin, on frequent assignment for National Geographic, hangs out on Maui six months each year.

Dr. Mark Lemmers, the fourth Whale Trust founder and president of the Oceanwide Science Institute, is an associate researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. A teacher at the U.H.-Manoa marine biology program, his specialty is marine bioacoustics and the use of remote acoustics to track and monitor crustacean populations around the world

Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, has helped rescue more than 70 whales trapped by lines, nets and marine debris. Like firemen, he is always on call to zoom out to help a whale anywhere in Hawaii.

Ken Balcomb, a biologist and founder of the Center for Whale Research, has studied the communication of humpbacks on Maui for more than 30 years. Focusing on the whale sounds, he has done a lot of work measuring the effects of sonar on whale populations in the Pacific Northwest.

Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad’s Expeditions, is a pioneer in eco-tourism.

Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, is a pioneer and leader in the development of satellite-monitored telemetry and the use of tags to track large whales to identify their migration patterns. Mate once mortgaged his house to finance whale research.

Dr. Jonathan Stern, a leading expert on minke whales and a professor at San Francisco State, studies porpoises.

Mark and Debbie Ferrari, founders of the Center for Whale Studies, have been close to whales for 35 years and in these waters for decades. Although they weren’t able to attend the event this year, they have shed light on essential facts of the life history of whales, their behavior and reproduction cycles.

Together, the researchers discover new things just about every year, although the long-sought goal of seeing a live birth has been elusive.

One thing that males have in common with some of the rest of us is that they can sing. More importantly for us, like many visitors these days, they keep coming back year after year to put on daily shows in-season off our magnificent shores.

With a last slap of their enormous tales, or a breach as high as 40 feet, perhaps they are saying goodbye when they leave us. That, however, may require more research.

Next: What researchers have learned, and how whales are filmed and photographed.