KAILUA-KONA, HAWAII I could feel the rush of the water from its tail as it swam right beside me. It was terrifying, said Dan McSweeney of his experience with an 18-foot false killer whale.
McSweeney, a whale researcher, was S.Q.U.B.A. diving beneath his boat in the Pacific Ocean to observe the whales in the wild when the unplanned encounter occurred.
I was inspired and terrified at the same time, he said.
McSweeney was watching the whales from what he thought was a safe distance as they ate and communicated. It was then he sensed something wasnt quite right.
All at once one of them changed its course and started swimming toward me. The one-ton animal barely missed him as it charged through the cold water, nearly pushing him down.
In shock, McSweeney turned to watch the creature swim out of sight, being surprised by what the whale was actually swimming toward. Directly behind McSweeney was another false killer whale that had been swimming in place, undetected by the researcher.
This whale had a bloody, half-eaten 200-pound tuna in its mouth as it continued to stare at McSweeney, motionless. Surprisingly, the whale released the tuna, confusing the researcher. He says it occurred to him that maybe the whale wanted him to take the fish from its powerful jaws.
As he reached to take the offering of food, the large mammal continued to look at him.
Thats when I decided I should give it back, he said.
He returned the tuna, the whale swam away, and McSweeney exhaled a deep sigh of relief into his oxygen tank. He watched as the other false killers passed their freshly caught food back and forth.
For them to pass food to a human is fascinating. You have to ask why they do that? said McSweeney. I thought they were treating me like another whale instead of a human.
McSweeney has devoted his life to studying whales off the coasts of Hawaii and Alaska. Primarily based on Hawaiis Big Island, McSweeney also is the captain of a seven-day-a-week whale watching boat that gives Hawaiian visitors the opportunity to get an up-close view of Hawaiis whales.
Ive always had a fascination with the ocean and a passion for marine animals, he said.
After moving from California to Hawaii in 1967 to pursue his passion, McSweeney combined his interests in photography and marine biology as a scuba diver and photographer. That led him to further study these fascinating animals as a researcher and observer.
McSweeney says this adventure with the false killer whale was his most awe-inspiring moment while working with these mysterious animals. But he spends much of his time looking for a more rare whale species.
Hawaiis state marine mammal, the humpback whale, comes to the islands and lives in the warm waters near the shoreline from December to April each year to birth and raise their offspring. They come so close to the shore that many beach-goers can observe the animals jumping out of the water.
Whales can be spotted by their signature slaps. Theres the tail slap, a pec slap where the whale lies on its side while slapping the water with its pectoral flipper, or a breach, where the whale completely propels its body out of the water to crash back to the surface with a large splash. This behavior can be explained as a way to herd schools of fish or to simply show off.
Many of Hawaiis coastal towns are former whaling villages. While whaling was outlawed in 1971, tourists continue to flock to these villages to shop and with hopes of catching a glimpse of the whales.
Based in the former whaling village Lahaina, Maui, the Pacific Whale Foundation caters to the islands whale-watching needs as well as working to protect the species. The PWF first began in 1980 to conduct research on the marine animals that called Hawaii home. According to Anne Rilero, PWFs Director of Marketing and Public Relations, while conducting this research, the people wanted to know about the data.
And the Pacific Whale Foundation Eco Adventure was born.
While, as the groups name suggests, whales tend to be the groups main focus, the PWF is also conducting a seven-year study on Mauis coral reef.
Were always trying to set an example and to inspire people, said Rilero. Many guests come from places without an ocean, so we want people to experience that awe when they see whales and dolphins.
The first to bring aboard trained naturalists, the PWF hosts dinner, cocktail and simple whale-watch trips to provide interaction with the resident sea life from a scientific perspective.
Were one of the first boat companies that doesnt feed the fish or swim with the dolphins, Rilero said. This careful effort to avoid upsetting the reefs balance is one of the factors that ensures the humpbacks return to the Hawaiian Islands each season.
According to the PWF, the whales that visit Hawaii and Alaska each year are in the North Pacific population of the worlds humpbacks. There are 11,000 to 14,000 humpbacks, with about 6,000 of those visiting the islands each winter. They arrive in late autumn and leave in late spring. But, according to the foundation, toothed whales and dolphins appear to be year-round visitors.
Humpbacks return to Hawaii for reproduction because of the safety the shoreline provides calves. There are few predators, and they all come to the shore at one time because the water is warm and that ensures survival, said Rilero.
While predators provide certain dangers to these shallow water dwellers, the top killer of such sea life is marine debris.
McSweeney said the biggest concerns whales face revolve around these changing patterns of pollution. This affects the food supply and global warming.
On a large scale, anything that alters the environment can affect marine life, he said. He also sites getting tangled in fishing gear as another major danger for whales.
In fact, it was a PWF whale-watching excursion that saved the life of a whale off the coast of Maui. We found a whale with rope around it. It swam up to the boat, so we called the National Marine Sanctuary, said Rilero. It was rescued.
But the life of a Hawaiian whale is significantly less dangerous since 1971. After the humpback population was reduced to the hundreds during the years of legal commercial whaling, the population has continued to grow, thanks to protective laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act from the International Whaling Commission, which works to protect such sea life.
This work has paid off, with about a seven percent increase in the humpback population per year. But the overall humpback population could decrease in the coming years.
Japan could resume commercial whaling, said Rilero.
While the whales that would be affected by this change are not in the same population as those that migrate in the oceans around America, Rilero urges Americans to write the Japanese government to address their concerns about its plan to hunt whales for commercial purposes.
The whales in danger are those of the south that are studied in Australia and migrate to the equator. But the PWF does study some of the whales in this population. Rilero cites two specific whales that could be in danger.
There are two whales we have collected data on for 10 years. Their names are Ilene and Sidney, she said. One has been a mother three times.
It would be sad if the Japanese government took whales out of that area, but at least Hawaiian whales arent being targeted.
But the reality of the situation is simple to McSweeney.
Whaling continues, he said. Whaling is a tradition over there and its been around a long time.
Even though these whales are about 5,000 miles away, Rilero and McSweeney said there are things Kentuckians can do to protect marine life.
From a large perspective, the quality of the ocean, the air we breathe, the seafood we eat, is a barometer of how the environment is functioning, McSweeney said. It provides food for people all over the world.
Being aware is huge, he said. Have an open mind to problems.
I think its good to think about what you put into the environment what you spray in your back yard could wind up in the ocean, Rilero said. Also, be an aware seafood shopper. Eat seafood that is sustainable. The power of the consumer is huge.
Rilero also puts emphasis on being aware of laws being passed that protect the ocean environment, and encouraging lawmakers to continue to pass these laws.
Just be aware that were not the only important life form on the planet, said McSweeney.
For more information on how you can support marine life, visit www.pacificwhale.org or www.ilovewhales.com. Information for this article was gathered on a recent trip to the islands.