Most people consider themselves lucky just to catch a glimpse of a humpback whale up close.
Katie Sheppard was even luckier. The Maui resident got to enjoy an unforgettable underwater performance.
Humpback whales migrate though Hawaiian waters from November to May every year to mate, calve, and nurse their young.
But what Sheppard captured is simply magical: a mother humpback playing in the warm Hawaiian water with her calf alongside.
“Sometimes you get a lot of breaching. Sometimes it’s just more tail slaps. Sometimes you get nothing, and then other times you have a special day like that,” she said.
It was special not only for what Sheppard saw, but also what she heard.
“We saw the mom and baby at first swimming in and as we stopped our motors and just hung out for a while, they came close to the boat and the male underneath was singing the whole time, and it was just pretty incredible to be that close and just hear it from above too,” she said.
As a 12-year resident of Maui, Sheppard says she takes the family boat out often, especially during whale season.
While she says every outing is unique and wonderful in its own way, the underwater concert she enjoyed this past weekend was above and beyond what nature usually offers.
“It’s a mixture of just tones and sometimes it sounds like a cow, sometimes it sounds like a motor,” Sheppard said, “and then it’s all kinds of things. I’m not really sure. It’s interesting for sure.”
University of Hawaii graduate student Jessica Chen studies humpback whale communications.
She believes the male heard singing was in a separate group from the mother and calf, but singing a relatively familiar tune.
“Songs are used generally during the mating season, so we believe it has something to do with mating,” Chen said. “So he was probably singing the standard one, maybe throwing in a few of his own different ideas. But we don’t really know why exactly they sing.”
Whatever message the male whale was trying to deliver, it struck the perfect chord for Sheppard.
“It was just special. I don’t now how to explain it,” she said.
Because the humpbacks are protected, you’re supposed to remain a minimum of 100 yards away.
In this case, Chen says the boaters did the right thing by cutting their motor and remaining still while the whales passed them.