An Afternoon of Cetaceans

From Sophia Taylor, Expedition Guide on Safari Explorer

Guests of the Safari Explorer are often treated to sights of massive humpback whales, playful spinner dolphins, and graceful manta rays throughout their trip between the Hawaiian Islands, but occasionally we get lucky and happen across something a bit rarer. This week, not only did we glimpse a unique marine creature, we were delighted by five different species of cetaceans in one afternoon!

Just as the shallow waters of Maui County are uniquely suited to host humpback whales as they breed, calve, and nurse their young all winter, the contrastingly deep waters of the Big Island attract an immense array of marine life that dwells in the pelagic zone. Due to the relative youth of the Big Island, and its position smack in the middle of the biggest ocean on the planet, over a thousand miles away from the continents, the seafloor drops off dramatically from the shore. Most places in the world, one would need to travel twenty-plus miles off the coast in order to reach the depth that the Big Island offers fewer than three miles offshore.

Because of the presence of this deep-water environment in relatively near-shore waters, we occasionally get to see the animals that roam the deep, just off the coast of the island. Transient orca, sperm whales, and many other odontocetes (toothed whales) are spotted by a lucky fisherman, tourist, or dive guide every once in a blue moon. There are few limits to the kinds of sea creatures that might happen to swim by as they migrate, scavenge, and cruise the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. On the Hawaiian Seascapes itinerary, the captain and guide team build cruising time into our schedule to spot wildlife, but we’re always on the lookout! Our guests are some of the best spotters, and you know what they say: 60 eyes are better than four.

On our second morning in Kona, we were making our way south to one of our favorite snorkel spots when I heard over the radio that Captain Gavin had spotted something off the starboard quarter of our bow, but it was too far away to get an ID. I ran up to the bridge to grab a pair of binoculars and as we got closer, we all agreed that the dorsal fins of these animals were too small and too far back to be one of our usual suspects (spinner or bottlenose dolphins).

We had to interrupt breakfast to show the guests this extremely rare cetacean, a couple of Blainville’s Beaked Whales. It was my first time ever seeing them, even after working on the water in Kona for over three years! Many more guides and captains, with much more experience than I, have never seen these either. What a treat! Although we only saw them come up to breathe twice, we were starting this amazing day off on a good foot.

Back onboard the big boat, everyone was enjoying a delicious lunch when we came upon another group of dolphins. You know you’re having a good week for wildlife spotting when you are trying to decide whether to call people away from their meal to look at something. We all decided that if it was “just spinner dolphins,” which we see very frequently, we would wait until the meal was over as to not interrupt service.

Well, we ended up calling our guests away from another meal because we had Pan-tropical Spotted dolphins coming up to play! When a bunch of people had gathered on the bow, I radioed the Chief Mate and asked if we could pick up some speed. I know these guys love to bow-ride and surf the wake of the boat. As we picked up speed, the dolphins started doing tricks and jumps, and that’s when I noticed there were some Spinner dolphins mixed into the group. It’s not uncommon to see the two groups together when we get lucky enough to spot them, as they both enjoy hunting for similar species of fish.

We thought we had maxed out our luck for the day by hitting the dolphin trifecta and glimpsing a rare beaked whale early on, but we were wrong. Not an hour later, we came upon a pod of Short-finned Pilot whales. Another rare toothed whale that we see in the pelagic zone off the coast of Kona. I just told our guests who were on the bow taking photos to keep a sharp eye under the surface of the water, because Oceanic Whitetip Sharks like to cruise with the Pilot whales and scavenge the scraps of tuna they leave behind. Suddenly, we saw one come right up to the surface not 10 feet from the boat! We watched the Pilot whales for about half an hour as they presumably breathed up for a long feeding dive.

It was a beautiful trip through Hawaii Nei, but it was an astonishingly amazing final day off the coast of Hawai’i Island. I never get tired of running down to the bow of the Safari Explorer to see what new delight the ocean has in store for us.