David Attenborough spoke to me again, this time from Maui’s southwest shore.
“A pregnant humpback whale has discerning taste,” he would say in my brain. “She won’t give birth just anywhere. Maui will do. She’s earned a vacation, and she needs the warmer waters to teach her calf how to survive the trip back to Alaska.”
That’s what he told me. If I was smarter, he’d probably use bigger words. But I’m the girl who got excited to feed the island chickens some of our cilantro Triscuits, so he kept things simple for me.
There is nothing more sacred than a mother and a baby, though, right? And us watching them from the shore, pointing when we’d see first a big puff of misty water drift from the surface, then a smaller one do the same, signaling a mother exhaling and her baby after – it was surreal.
We’d point again, when we’d see first a large, dark body arc out of the water, followed by a smaller one. And, then gasp, when we would see, from a distance, a massive fin come out of the water (looking like the size of a wind surfer’s mast), followed by a smaller fin doing the same.
It was as if they were waving. I think they were. They could tell we were trying to get photos of them, which is not easy. We just felt lucky to see it. In real life.
It’s hard to wrap my head around our luck. We happened upon a blue whale while returning from a camping adventure at Channel Islands National Park, and now we timed a trip to Maui right when humpbacks use the island’s waters as birthing suites. Both were kind of happenstance, not something we knew would be happening when we booked the trips, and both were just unbelievable.
It’s crazy to witness stuff like that. And you only can if you go.
That’s what I tell myself every time I zip up a wet suit, in between deep breaths (because the wet suit is intentionally tight and because of the anxiety that comes with the whole thing.) “You’ll only see this amazing underwater landscape if you go look, Lis,” I say, breathless even though I’m head-talking to my own self.
That, and “Kids do this, Lisa. Don’t be such a sissy.” Also, this one: “You’re an Aquarius. You’re a water sign. Buck up.” And then the impractically practical survival tip, gained during Shark Week, pipes up with, “Just flip ‘em over, by the tail. Sharks are paralyzed that way.”
Right. Yes. Flip them. Right after I scream, inhale water, cough and almost die. No problemo.
But, if I didn’t get in, wading awkwardly through the soft sand to secure my flippers, all the while being pushed around by the incoming surf, I wouldn’t have seen Crush – that super chill turtle from Finding Nemo. But I got to see him, and three of his compadres, just swimming around, looking for Squirt I suppose.
I also wouldn’t have seen the expression on Ron’s face when he dove below me, floated for a second, looked back up at me quick, pointed to his ears and then held his open hands out to the side of his head in excited disbelief. His face said everything about what was happening.
He could hear the humpbacks singing to each other. And he couldn’t believe it. It’s a face I will never forget, and an expression I can see in front of me as if I were underwater again.
We had scoped out the best spot to snorkel and see turtles, and we found it at Makena Cove, not far from Maluaka, which is known locally as “Turtle Town.” We had planned that, and were lucky enough to be the only people out snorkeling in the water when we went.
But we couldn’t have planned hearing a conversation between two humpback whales.
Since I need earplugs to swim, I couldn’t hear what Ron described as a coyote-like chorus between the moms and their babies off in the distance. But, because I was in the water, I could feel what he heard.
And that’s when I finally gave myself a break. Before that, I was skittish in the water, self talking myself into a shark attack, being unkind to myself for being scared in the first place. I was trying to talk myself off my own ledge.
But after that, after feeling what Ron heard, sensing the magic through his breathless description as we bobbed above the water immediately after, I let myself off my own hook.
“You’re doing it. You’re here. You’re scared, but you’re doing it.”
It was kind of one of those moments that I think most people don’t give themselves enough credit for – for celebrating where you are rather than condemning yourself for a perceived deficit. It’s a brain retrain thing, for sure.
So we both had our moments. Me, just being in the open water at all and not completely wigging out. Ron, eavesdropping on one of life’s first conversations between a couple of whales.
I wanted a timestamp of the moment. So we snagged a photo at the end of the cove, after tiptoeing over lava rock tide pools. And, as the universe would have it, a humpback photobombed.
She was saying good-bye, probably. Ron said I was right. Because, he can speak whale now.