How To Ride A Whale And Survive
Invitation to Adventure
Whale riding is not the latest extreme sport, nor is it an activity I would recommend you seek out to do. Today I am going to tell you how I serendipitously rode a humpback whale while visiting Maui, Hawaii, USA, and survived.
I like to think that my life has been graced with amazing, unexpected opportunities. Often, these opportunities relate to invitations made by nature and other times they follow invitations made by friends, acquaintances, and family. Now, I'm not talking about those kinds of invitations - I'm actually a very conservative girl with a pretty straight-forward love life.
No, I'm talking about invitations like, "Would you like to travel to Africa to write a book?" or, "Would you like to accompany me to Mexico on a companion fare - I'll pay for the accommodation?" This story starts because of the offer, "Would you like to go Maui? We can stay with my friends who run snorkeling and nature tours and we can go out with them for free." How can I turn it down?
All writing and images are copyrighted by me, Teapixie! :)
Purple Star In My Pocket And I Don't Know What To Do!
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Hitting The Surf
My new friends live charmed lives. They rent a main-floor suite in Lahaina on Maui Island, one of the Hawaiian Islands, with lime and avocado trees outside the window, a lanai adorned with tropical plants, and a beastly barbecue that toasts up the most delicious tuna steaks I have ever eaten. But the true charm is their day jobs: one is a naturalist on a catamaran and the other is a nature filmographer on that same boat.
Each day they head out in their swim suits and sunscreen to lead snorkeling trips in the clearest water, teaming with beautiful and colourful sea life, or naturalist tours where spinner dolphins, by the dozens, lead the boat to where whales are at play, spouting and breaching.
On the days when I join their tours I sit at the very front of a pontoon with my camera at hand. I pretend that the spinner dolphins are dancing just for me. Funny little selfish world, considering that there are 40 other people on the boat. When the whales come into sight I am no longer alone in my little world because everyone's attention is peaked and the gasps and cheers can't be ignored. I am truly of the mind that there is nothing more exciting than watching a whole whale breach.
Magical Mystery Tour
And then I get invited on a personal whale watching tour.
Can you imagine? I am doing this trip on a shoestring budget. My daughter is back home in Canada with my husband while I do this two week adventure. It is through the kindness and generosity of others that I am experiencing this tropical world. And now, I am about to be taken out on a special tour.
I have no information about this trip. When my friend and I arrive we discover that there are going to be 5 of us on this tour and we're going out in a Zodiac - an inflatable dinghy with a motor attached. Just getting into the boat feels weird - the floor is all wobbly and it's super important that we balance our weight out on the different parts of the boat.
As we set sail my curiosity gets the best of me. "Where are we going? What are we going to do?" The naturalist who is running the boat explains that we are going out into the bay which is between the islands of Maui and Lanai and we will be watching for spouting whales.
I am reflecting on the simplicity of our boat. It feels very weird to be so far out in the ocean on a dinghy. In my experience, dinghies are used on fresh water lakes or rivers and are mostly springboards from which I dive into the depths of the water, resurfacing to start all over again. I won't be diving off this boat.
The Bay Between Maui and Lanai
Chicken Of The Sea?
If you were invited on a tour, would you need to have specific information about how the tour is conducted before you would go?
Everyone on our boat is eager to be the first to sight the signs of a whale. We are giggling and joking, filled with excitement. We can all feel the simplicity of this boat and the oneness with nature we could all feel if we have a hole or get a puncture. It is, of course, our naturalist friend who sights the first spout. Against my instincts, he directs our boat towards the spout. "How close should we really get?" I ask intrepidly. He explains that it is very important that we not have physical human to whale contact, but that it is okay to go close enough to see them breaching.
I realize that I am no longer blinking and look around the boat to see that no one else is either. We all have our cameras ready to shoot and we are holding our breath. Are we really doing this in a rubber air-filled boat? This is so, so...National Geographic! We're just like professionals. "Like" being the operative word.
The spouting starts to be regular. It appears that we have found two whales, some distance apart. We are hoping to see breaching but it seems that all we are getting is spouting. It's not exactly disappointing, because we have found whales, but we were hoping to see more.
We keep watching and it appears that the whale farthest away has moved even farther off and the one closest to us has disappeared. We all begin to lose our excitement and start discussing which direction to go next and how much time we should consider being on the water.
And then one of the members of our boat begins screaming.
Eye Of The Storm
"It's right THERE! IT'S RIGHT THERE!" and she is pointing to the side of the boat. A humpback whale has surfaced about 5 yards from us. We are then all stunned into silence. Was that real? What is going on? Is this safe? Why is this whale so close to us? I start sending out a desperate, silent plea. "Please don't breach. Please don't breach." If that whale breaches, we will be in a crisis because this boat won't survive.
We all stop breathing. "What should we do?" everyone is asking the naturalist, all at once. Panicked, he explains that he can't move our boat, for fear of causing damage to the whale with the motor, and he cuts the engine. We are now floating, without any ability to control our position in the water.
And then it happens, the whale surfaces again. This time we see the eye of the whale before the rest of the body follows. It is that close, mere feet away. Snap, snap, snap - everyone is shooting their camera as fast as they can, not really believing that the whale is so close. And then we realize that this whale is circling our boat.
Our guide thought to bring along snorkeling masks and he encourages the most courageous of our group to stick their faces in the water to view this amazing mammal up close. Initially, I am too frightened to take a turn. And then I give in - how can I miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Putting on the mask, I grasp hold of the security ropes that run the length of the boat and slide my body over the air-filled side of the dinghy to get my face into the cold water. It is like someone placed a photo of a whale right in front of my face. I can't believe how close it is. I can't believe that it's looking at me with its great big eye. I am holding my breath and stunned. "Is this real?" I keep asking myself. And then it's time to come up for air.
My Close Up?
If you had the chance, would you stick your head in the water to see a whale up close?
Ride The Wild Wave
"Why is this whale so concerned with us?" someone asks the guide. He explains that this is likely a female and she might be thinking that our boat looks like a good mate. The problem, he says, is that other whale that is now so far away is likely her mate and he will not be happy about the connection she is making. Shortly after he says this we start hearing the male sounding off. The naturalist explains that the male is calling the female because she is so far behind.
And it has gone quiet. The whale is no longer circling our boat.
I am scared. How can we get out of here? "Is it safe for us to motor away, yet?" I ask. Our naturalist explains that it hasn't been long enough and he wants to make sure the whale is out of the way.
And then the center of our rubber boat rises, all the way from the back to the front, at once. The sides of the boat are drooping lower and lower and those of our crew who are not in the centre of the boat are sliding to the edges and holding on for dear life.
For a moment, we are silent. Then, as we realize our boat is no longer in the water, but we are moving, we all begin screaming and laughing with over-the-top excitement and fright. I am at the very front of the boat, as is my habit, and I look down into the water to see that the whale is directly beneath us. She is actually lifting our boat into the air. It all happens so quickly that I barely have time to think about what might happen next.
Miraculously, the whale gently lets our boat down back onto the surface of the ocean. It appears that she wanted to say goodbye. As she slowly leaves, spouting and surfacing her way back to her partner, we are left stunned in the boat, trying to gasp for air, unable to comprehend what just happened.
We rode a whale. And it was the whale's choice. Holy dangerous, Batman. It only lasted for seconds, but they are seconds I will never, ever forget.
Once our guide regains his composure he fires up the engine and aims our little boat directly back toward shore. This has been enough adventure for one day. While we all want to understand what just happened, we can't speak. We are stunned.
This is a story that no one would believe, without the photos to prove our experience. I can say I was far too excited to get any really good images, but I did get photos, as you can see.
The most important tip I can provide for "how to ride a whale and survive" is this: don't approach the whale, let the whale approach you. And, sometimes, it pays to approach your adventures the same way.
Please promise yourself that you will never, ever touch a wild whale. Visit Whalewise.org to learn about how to keep whales safe from humans.
Would ever ride a whale?
Whale Rider - the movie
This is an exceptional coming-of-age movie. The character development is as rich as the incredible landscape images of the coast of New Zealand. It's a tear-jerker and a heart-tugging story that reflects the ever-present contrast between the beginning of life and the end.
It is worth owning so you can watch it at those moments in life where you need to reconnect with your faith in humanity and the future.
Humpback Whale In Action Off Of Maui
Because I don't have a video of my own adventure, I thought I'd give you a chance to watch this one. I find the sound somewhat aggravating (you might want to turn it down), but the images are wonderful.
Books About Whales
Get Your Own Snorkel!
The best thing I ever did was buy a snorkeling set and a set of flippers. I've used them in Africa, Hawaii and in lakes all over North America. I recommend you carry a set around in the trunk of your car. You will never regret having them.
Blow Up Boats
I can't just call it a dinghy. When you need it, you have to blow it up. When you're out in the water, it blows up. There is no other way to describe these, but they are worth years of fun.
So I've told a whale of a story. Feel welcome to write about your own travel adventures here, or to talk about my story. I read every single comment. :)