It is a bright, sunny day off the coast of Maui. Fifty yards from the stern of our Zodiac a gust of water shoots high into the air, followed immediately by a deep inhalation as a massive humpback tail disappears beneath the rolling swells.
Floating on the surface, I hear the high-pitched squeals and rapid clicks of approaching dolphins. Michel DeLoire grins at me through the glass of his faceplate then nods. We take deep breaths together, and then plunge down into the path of an approaching humpback pod. Holding our breath, we descend quickly to a depth of 30 feet. The water is especially clear. We can see a 100 feet or more, and the bright morning light is excellent for filming. The restless ocean surface throws wandering sunbeams of shimmering radiance into the deep blue water. About us, the ocean is full of sea mammal sounds. Nearby a bull humpback bellows out its love song.
Beneath the waves, there are no interfering noises to distract from the mighty leviathan’s melody that reverberates through the water. Immersed in the deep tide of whale music, I hear on a softer scale the chirps, clicks, and twitters of excited dolphins. I am floating on a wave of living music. A melody of nature lightly suspended in the rapture of the deep. Peering anxiously into the broad vista of light and water, we wait eagerly, and then the marine mammal pod is upon us. Playful dolphins lead the way. There are a half-dozen of them riding the bow wave of a pair of lead bull whales. It is an amazing sight. I know dolphins ride the bow wave of ships and boats, sort of like surfing. Yet this is surfing 30 feet below the surface. I wonder if dolphins ride the bow wave of submerged submarines.
The dolphins are tiny compared to the brace of whales that swims behind them. Michel and I separate, he films the oncoming whales, but I find the playful dolphins captivating. Two bottlenose break away from the lead pack and rush in my direction. Sunbeams play across their slick bodies as the dolphins gracefully wheel about me. They circle so tightly I could reach out and touch them. When the angle of the light is perfect, I aim my camera and release the shutter. I do not know it then, but I have just shot my first Cousteau poster.
The dolphins race back to join the lead whales. The massive marine mammals, like giant underwater zeppelins, pass only yards away. Behind the lead whales, I see a large humpback cow swimming into view. Then slightly above her, I notice a newborn calf and suddenly I realize the incredible magnitude of what Michel and I are witnessing.
An ancient Hawaiian hula tells a story about dolphins protecting humpback whale calves. A very elderly woman, whom I had sought out to interview, told it to me just a week ago. Jana came to Hawaii as a little girl in the early 1900’s. Daughter of a missionary she played and learned with the Hawaiian children of the court of the last great Queen Regent of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani. (Note: in 1892, she yielded her crown to armed US Marines). She told me the story of how the little dolphins are the protectors of the great whales. Then she stood with the aid of her cane before leaning it against a chair. For a moment, I saw the girl within the ancient woman as she danced the hula of the dolphin protectors of whales.
As I watched the rather spry elderly woman dance the hula, I thought what an amazing way to teach a child visually the legends and history of Old Hawaii.
Recent science lends credibility to that old Hawaiian story, which I am about to witness. When a whale calf is born, berthing fluids drift down current in an odor corridor. Sharks that swim into that scent stream go crazy with hunger. This is whale blood, a prelude to a feast, a grand banquet for whoever arrives first. The sharks will charge up that odor corridor to attack and kill the calf—but for the dolphins. The bulls cannot defend against the sharks, which are too quick and agile—but the dolphins can. The dolphins can sense when a whale calf is about to be born, nature’s ultrasound machines at work. The dolphins will ring the cow and calf driving off or killing the marauding sharks. The best protective action is for the whales and dolphins to flee the birthing site quickly.
That is what Michel and I are witnessing, an underwater wagon train with dolphin scouts leading the way, followed by the bulls, which are the heavy cavalry. The cow and calf are the center of the wagon train and if the sharks arrive, they are the marauding Indians that dart in to attack the calf.
The cow changes course toward me. Her name is Daisy, a diver-friendly humpback we filmed the day before. Yesterday, she had no calf; this must be just moments after the berth. The whales are swimming away from the birthing site.
Abruptly, a cloud of giant bubbles rises out of the depths. Looking down, I see a humpback bull releasing a long bubble steam. I shoot an image of the rising bubbles as they mask the calf, but it swims boldly through them, straight at me—which creates a problem. Somewhere, Michel is filming with his 35mm movie camera, and I may be between him and the calf. I am not wearing Cousteau silver; my wetsuit is black. I have to get out of his shot.
I swim backward hoping not to hinder Michel’s cinema camera, but the calf keeps coming, and seeing me swimming away, becomes bolder. My lungs labor for air as I continue to shoot pictures. The baby humpback is a little longer than a dolphin, yet it has more mass, nearly a ton of wide-eyed innocence. I see the calf’s eye regarding me.
Beyond the calf, daisy swims in close parental attendance. As the small humpback comes right alongside me, it fills the sports action finder on my underwater camera. I release the shutter then swim desperately for the surface. I have been down for almost two minutes and am lightheaded from lack of oxygen. Rocketing upward, I see the calf’s tail beat strongly as it follows me up. A foot beneath the rippling surface the sunlight intensifies. I shoot a final picture, capturing the baby humpback in a halo of light, and then we both rise to the surface to breathe. Gasping through my snorkel I watch the little whale tail disappear beneath the shimmering water.
Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. — Henry David Thoreau
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