It all began with the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. When the whales knew the wave was coming, like the boat operators in the harbors in Maalaea and Lahaina, they set out for deeper waters to ride it out.
How did they know? Questions like that should keep us humans in our place when we start making assumptions about being masters of the universe or, more importantly, our own planet.
For the next several days they were gone, causing some whale-watch captains, naturalists and crew members to think whale-watch season was over for the year.
The Maui News/ / RICK CHATENEVER photo
But by the time I took my visiting family out for a look last Friday, the whales were back. Big time.
As soon as our Trilogy boat cleared the Lahaina harbor mouth and got by the Europa cruise ship anchored offshore, we were surrounded. Four spouts at a time off one rail. The massive backs of two more carving a path through the water in front of us.
There might have been a dozen, estimated our naturalist, Eric, leaning on to the bowline at the front of the sailing catamaran, And easily that many under the surface around us. We're talking whale tonnage in the millions, with us along for the ride.
You know how you spend whale watches learning to scan the water and the horizon, identifying sectors as though they're on a clock face so when you see a telltale spout, you can yell, "Three o'clock!" and everyone runs to that rail, cameras in hand, threatening to capsize the craft in the spirit of the shared Kodak moment ?
And then, after a mass frenzy of clicking, you check your shots only to see a series of blue rectangles with a blurry black smudge in the middle, like nature's fingerprint ... ?
Yeah, well, this sail wasn't like that.
We were in a competition pod of males. This late in the season, a certain, uh, romantic desperation sets in, with the realization that the females have calved and are leaving by the day, and the alpha guy is first in line for the heart of whoever's left.
Mating season is ending. After that, it's north to Alaska, with a lot of long, lonely winter nights for those males unlucky in love.
Like Eric, the sailboat's captain, Jonathan, and crew member, Aiden, were having a hard time curbing their enthusiasm amidst the sheer volume of whaleness. Not only were there so many of them, but they didn't mind having us right there for the action. The crew guys were trying to come up with suitable terms to express their appreciation: "Whaloha whahalo "
We'd think we had lost them, and then here they'd be again, coming at us, swimming under the boat, the whiteness of their flesh glimmering just under the surface.
Trilogy, the perennial ocean-activity winner in The Maui News' annual Best of Maui contest, specializes in up-close-and-personal moments with other species. The thoroughly professional crew members come at their jobs with a disarming, casual ease. It doesn't feel like the whales are putting on a show for you, but more like we're all just hanging out together.
Trilogy cruises are about making you feel like you're out on a friend's boat, explained Capt. Jonathan, when he wasn't caught up in the sheer amazement of all the friendliness coming back at us over the rails. (To have your own Trilogy experience, visit www.sailtrilogy.com.)
My family had come to Maui to honor our dad, who died last year at age 94. In the course of a week of memories, lots of laughter and little tributes, we got constant reminders that life isn't something that ends -it just changes form.
It's always happening, within and without us. Each of us is just along for the ride.
Go out with the whales and you get another reminder that we're all in it together.