Hawaii (The Big Island):March 6-16
 Day 7, Pilot Whales


Short-finned pilot whales

The next morning we didn’t get to enjoy our new lanai, as we had an early tour planned. Needing to be at Honokohau Harbor (north of Kailua) at 7:00 a.m., we left the room when it was still dark at 6:10. The tour boats there are easy to find, as they are moored right along the inside edge of the harbor and each has a big sign behind their boat. We stopped by the restroom just as Captain Tom was stepping out and he immediately guessed who we were. We grabbed our gear and headed down to the boat which was tied by the stern to the small dock along the edge of the harbor and from the bow by a mooring buoy. Tom gave us a brief overview and we were on our way. For a six-pack, the boat was spacious. The back deck had plenty of room, somewhat interrupted by the fishing seat bolted to the middle. There was a cushioned seat to either side of the boat amidships, and a few steps between them led to a small salon with bench seats and a table and a small head. The wheelhouse was built above the salon, which made it a bit hard to hear Tom when he talked to us while we were underway, but it seemed like a good setup.

In researching whale watching in Hawaii, I quickly saw that whale watching boats don’t limit themselves to humpback season, but offer trips all year, targeting small toothed whales in the summer (e.g., short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, beaked whales, dolphins). Intrigued, I’d picked Tom more or less at random and emailed him from Juneau to ask if those whales were also seasonal or whether they might be around in the winter. He responded right away that  they were there all winter but he never had demand to see them when humpbacks are around—and to let him know if I wanted a private charter. After some internal debates (I could rent my own boat for cheaper) Chris and I decided to go ahead with the charter. After all, I wouldn’t know where to begin to find them.

Tom knew where to begin. We headed straight out from the harbor until we hit 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet). Like most of the toothed whales (spinner dolphins being the exception), pilot whales (which was the most likely whale we’d encounter) spend all day in deep water, feeding on squid and such at night and resting at the surface during the day. Once we hit 6,000 feet, we turned south and drove along at that depth, keeping a look out for black bodies on the surface. I had no idea what to expect. At that time of year, Tom doesn’t have a lot of intel to use, and he encouraged us to point out anything we saw. Not far into the trip I got excited when I saw splashes toward the island which, though they weren’t the black bodies Tom said to look for, seemed promising. I soon realized with some embarrassment that I was seeing surf hitting the shore in the distance. One thing Tom mentioned was that fishing boats can sometimes give away pilot whale pods, as boats will circle them in the hope that game fish are hanging out with them. It was as I was gazing toward a fishing boat to the west with that in mind that I saw the black bodies. I waited half a second for another look at which point I saw dorsal fins and called it out. Chris saw them immediately, but it took Tom a couple of minutes to spot them (partly because I was not very good at describing where they were). They were probably a couple of hundred feet out and, once Tom saw them, he exclaimed that they were pilot whales, and we turned toward them. We were just under one hour from stepping on the boat.

The first thing Tom noticed was that it was a small group. Apparently he usually sees groups of about 17 and, in the end, I was pretty confident of eight. There was a group of four or five younger animals who wound up in a cluster off the starboard stern, a couple others more widely spaced off the stern and port stern, and one larger female (the leader of that sub-group) farther to port. The dorsal fin is a tell of age and, at some point, gender, with mature male fins being very large with big hooks on the end of them. The groups are matrilineal and females form lifelong bonds; unlike their cousins the orcas, however, males don’t necessarily (or possibly ever?) stay with their mother’s pod, and we saw no mature males among them.

So we slowed to a standstill and, while we bobbed on the back deck, the ocean was alive with spyhopping pilot whales! The fellow behind the boat might have been the most active, raising his head high above the water over and over. The group to starboard, who were closest, also spyhopped repeatedly, and we got occasional looks from port as well. It was a total delight, and Tom said he’d never seen so much spyhopping activity. Pilot whales are, I have to confess, adorable, with their round heads and small mouths. They looked as delighted to check us out as we were to see them. Perhaps the rarity of winter fans made them more interested than usual. Tom kept an eye on the dominant female, warning us that when she decided it was time, the rest of the group would follow her underwater. But every time she made a feint toward diving deep, she came up again. When she finally did shut it down, it was after a very, very slow pass with the whole pod across the stern of the boat. We could see their dark shapes under the water and, when they surfaced, we could see what looked to be nicks and/or barnacles on their fins. We had one more long, rolling, spyhopping encounter as they passed the starboard side and then they dove deeper and disappeared. Pilot whales don’t normally fluke, but I did see the tail of one individual as a wave from behind him pushed his flukes into view; the edges of them were curled (which I gather is normal).

Feeling a little giddy at our luck, we moved our way south and kept a lookout. Twelve minutes later we caught up with another group of pilot whales, likely the rest of the pod we’d seen earlier. We passed a nursery group with four or five calves and a female to starboard; some distance from the others, there were three more individuals including two obvious (but not large) males. We watched the former for a few minutes, then the original group came up to port. We ended the encounter by passing alongside the trio that included the larger males (who tend to be the least interested in boats) and then, extremely grateful for the encounter, we let them be.

From there we continued south as far as time would allow, moving closer inshore and then traveling north again back to the harbor. The idea was to look for humpback whales on the return trip. Surprisingly, despite humpbacks being the major motivation for going to Hawaii for years, they were pretty low on the priority list once I learned all there was to do on the Big Island. We’d seen quite a bit of activity from shore already, and seeing them up close on the water was not nearly as interesting as, for example, seeing pilot whales. That’s just as well because conditions were not good for humpback watching. Strong winds had buffeted the northern half of the island most of the week, which had prevented Tom from taking passengers north into the whale sanctuary where most of the action off the Big Island takes place (and where we’d seen everything so far from shore). This day was no different, which was why we’d headed south instead of north where we certainly would have seen humpbacks if we’d failed to see pilot whales.

By the time we turned north again, Chris and I were drowsy from the early morning and the vibrations of the Spinner’s twin diesels. We passed a sport fishing boat that looked to be pulling in a marlin and stopped to observe, but missed the action. Perhaps half way back to the harbor, Tom stopped again, this time in the vicinity of two tourist boats. He’d seen them stopped when we were heading south and interpreted their behavior as whale watching. A group of dolphins came up between them and one of the boats dropped a bunch of people in the water—one of the snorkel with dolphin tours that Tom despised (because they relentlessly pursue the dolphins and do not let them rest). A juvenile whale came up among the dolphins, which made the action clearly illegal. As we sat offshore the other boats, the whale fluked and the dolphins all turned in our direction; Tom expected them to dive under the boat, but the dolphins turned off our port side when they were pretty close (allowing Tom to identify them as bottlenosed dolphins by their sickle-shaped fins) and the whale followed underwater out of sight. Although we never got a good look at the whale, it was neat to see the dolphins associating with him, something I’d read about but is apparently not very common to see (Tom said he sees if four or five times a year). The tour boats rushed past us to the dolphins and flanked them; even if they could claim they weren’t harassing the dolphins, they can’t have been ignorant of the humpback beneath them and were therefore clearly violated the 100 yards law. The whale came up briefly beyond them and we left the area.

Chris had seen a blow behind us as we left the harbor and we looked through that area thoroughly (bypassing the harbor the first time to eat up the rest of our four hours), but saw nothing. I did notice some long, sandy beaches near the entrance to the harbor, though, and wondered why they were devoid of people.

We parted ways with Tom in the harbor and drove back into Kailua for lunch at the Ultimate Burger again. As I was paying, Jordan (the assistant manager) walked out and, apparently recognizing us as repeat customers, mumbled “20% discount” and continued on his way! I hadn’t even caught what was going on until Chris filled me in, but the cost of our lunch had dramatically dropped in price!

We watch whales pass the stern (Captain Tom's photo)

Pilot whale!

Pair of pilot whales

Chris and a whale look at each other

A male pilot whale

Spy hop!

The pod together

Humpback whale

On the back deck

After a scrumptious lunch of 100% grass fed beef fresh off the grill, we chose Spencer Beach as the place to spend the rest of the afternoon. It was the northernmost beach on the south Kohala Coast, just past the junction with 270, and was near a large heiau I wanted to visit. Unfortunately, the beach was closed that day for maintenance, a frustrating discovery after the long drive to get there. But, since we were there, we walked around the heiaus; the older one is falling apart and was once used by King Kamehameha I as a platform for canons. The other one—heiau on Whale Hill—was built by the king before he set out to conquer the rest of the Hawaiian islands; it is apparently built, at least in part, by round lava rocks that had been moved hand-to-hand across the island from Pololu Valley (I read that any stone dropped to the ground was left there, and can still be seen straddling the island). We weren’t supposed to get close to the huge stone walls, though, so I couldn’t discern the round rocks from below. It was an impressive site, crowning the hill. A multi-tiered wooded platform below it held offerings from Hawaiians who still honor the site.

Consulting the cheat sheet, we decided to check out Waikoloa Beach, a little farther south, which is surrounded by a resort community. Viewed from the highway, it seemed to be artificially constructed on a lava field, rather than being built on more accessible land like most of the rest of the island’s communities seemed to be. In fact, the location was quite bizarre with the obvious exception of the beach itself. We drove down a road with barren, a’a lava to either side, and then into a shameful cluster of small shopping centers. Passing through those, we wound up in the beach’s parking lot, a rectangle scraped away from the desolation around it.  And from there a short park to the narrow strip of paradise on the beach.

And it was a lovely beach, with stone, open air bathrooms and attractive vegetation growing among clumps of lava in the sand at the back of the beach. To the north was a long arc of white sand and palm trees that separated the ocean from a very large fish pond. We chose the south end instead, sitting on a salt and pepper beach (part black sand from lava rocks, part coral) and found a comfy place beneath a tree to relax. We were at first surprised to find a breeze blowing from shore, bending the palm trees to the ocean, since the winds we’d avoided that morning were curving around the island form the northwest and coming inshore. After about half an hour, the wind abruptly changed direction and roared in from the ocean, driving all but the hardy folks from the water. Although it surely would have been pleasant to swim (and it appeared to be a good place to snorkel), I didn’t think getting out of the water and into the wind would be very fun, and neither of us did. I wandered around a little and read some interpretive signs, one of which talked about the large fish pond which was managed for use by the king and nobles passing by. So, Hawaiians must have lived there along the shore taking advantage of the fresh water spring that fed the brackish pond, but nothing like the resort town that lies there now.

And so we spent a very pleasant time on a popular, touristy beach. On the way out we were surprised to see many cats resting on the rocks near the entrance in what appeared to be a cat paradise (signs indicated that the cats were well cared for). On the way back to the rental, we stopped by a pizza place Chris had found nearby and picked up a pizza for dinner. We drank lambics, ate popcorn, and watched a movie after dinner.


Heiau on Whale Hill

The older heiau is in the foreground

Offering platform

Waikoloa Beach

Waikoloa Beach

Is this an old konane board?

Waikoloa Beach looking toward the resort and fish pond

Pacific golden plover

Cat paradise


Spy hop (photo by Captain Tom)

On to Day 8