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Singing the same song for visitors

By Staff | Feb 25, 2016

At the recent Whale Tales 2016, whale scientist Jim Darling showed 11 circles depicting the changes in whale songs from Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and Mexico.

KAPALUA – Answer this: on any given day in winter here, which state populates Maui with more visitors than any other? You would be surprised to know it is Alaska.

Doing the math, there are some 8,000 two-legged visitors – sometimes called tourists – here each winter day. Of the “guesstimated” 10,000 whales that come to Hawaii waters each winter, some 8,000 are here at any one time.

Twenty years ago, it would take only one column to write all that we knew about our annual ocean-going visitors. Today, it would take many books.

All of this newfound knowledge, developed by a close-knit group of whale scientists brought together by Whale Trust Maui, was on display and within hearing of some 600 people assembled at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua at Whale Tales 2016 on President’s Day weekend.

“Gurgle gurgle. Screech.” Pecking sounds. Buzzsaw sounds. “Screech.” Splash. Trumpet sounds. “Screech. Gurgle. Ump-ump.” Splash. “Gurgle.”

This was the chatter of humpback whales gliding peacefully through deep blue water shown in a film last week by Jill Mickelsen of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. A ballet of whales doing what whales do was shown in a mesmerizing film that prompted the question: why are people so fascinated with whales above and beyond any other creature?

We sought an answer from extraordinary scientist Jim Darling, one of the three founders of Whale Trust Maui who has been recording whale songs for decades, to try to figure out what they mean.

“People are fascinated by whales,” Darling said, “because they are mysterious because they are in the ocean and because like us, they are mammals.”

Darling told the audience that a typical whale song repeated over and over again like a familiar melody on an iPhone might last 15 minutes. The singers? Thousands of males offshore on Maui who generally sing the same song.

Darling has broken down whale songs into segments and assigns each segment a different color, so the sounds of one group of whales can be compared graphically to other groups of whales he has recorded in other parts of the North Pacific.

These colorful charts of recordings – made for the prime whale locations of Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and Mexico – show there is amazing uniformity between the songs sung in one place and another. Each year, the song patterns appear to be a bit different. And once in awhile, there is a sudden change in the melodies between one area and another.

Darling has yet to figure out the reason for the change. Yet he believes that the similarity of songs off the shores of different countries mean that whales intermingle throughout the entire North Pacific.

Thus, every whale seen here during whale season has not necessarily traveled from Alaska. Some may come from California and others from other points in the Pacific.

The work Darling does has the ring of complexity, and the words written here are likely a simplification and may not be precisely accurate. If you have gotten this far, however, you may already know more about whales than the best researchers knew decades ago.

There is, however, one thing that is very clear. Our 10,000 visitors will be shoving off for colder waters in the next few months, and our whale researchers will follow.

Next November, the whales will start coming back home. The whale researchers will not be far behind, and come next February, they once again will be bringing new whale tales via Whale Trust Maui to eager audiences here. And like that time a Hawaii voyaging canoe returned to Tahiti for the first time in centuries after its maiden voyage in 1976, we can say: “Welcome home.”

Columnist’s Notebook: This is the third “Voices of Maui” column on the people who work with “our whales.” The first two (on photographer Flip Nicklin and whale untangler Ed Lyman) appeared a year ago and can be found in my new book, “Voices of Aloha Beyond the Beach.”

As this column was completed, Darling noted in an e-mail that 10,000 whales come here each year, but there are only 8,000 that are here at one time. This would equal 8,000 visitors per day who are normally here in the winter.