Off Deep Blue's port side, several big boys near the head of the group have been veering back and forth, pushing, shoving, ramming, and swiping at each other with fins as they steam across the 'Au'au Channel. Now a trio is swimming parallel while keeping enormous heads lifted high, planing over the waves like fast-moving ships. "Three males motorboating," Salden says, while seawater cascades from the whales' partly opened maws and the volumes of air rushing in and out of their blowholes whistle-roar like factory pipes.
When the trio finally dips beneath the surface, the whales release streams of air from their mouths. One adds a continuous jet from the blowhole. "Bubble trail," declares Salden. "Probably the dominant animal using it as a display." All at once, a male's back rises higher and higher above the water without any visible effort. That's because another male has dived underneath and started lifting him up. What term will Salden, former chairperson of the speech communication department at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, use for this?
Ah. The victim does look as if he had run aground on a hidden shoal.
After taking tail photographs to identify the individuals involved—each humpback has a unique pattern of pigment and scars on the underside—Salden turns to an assistant, Peggy Stap, who has been sitting patiently on the stern clad in a wet suit and oversize fins. "OK," he says. "GO!" And she's overboard, kicking toward a roller derby in the Kingdom of Giants, one hand thrusting a video camera at several hundred thousand pounds of churning behemoths, the other hand held high out of the water to signal the whales' number and direction and also to let us track her more easily from the deck.
A few years ago, Stap operated a greenhouse and ornamental flower business in Michigan. On the last day of a vacation in Maui, she was sightseeing over coral in a glass-bottomed boat when "a mother and calf swam right underneath, looking at us with those eyes," she recalls. Stap went home, sold her business, flew back to Maui, and volunteered to take identification photos from a commercial whale-watching boat. More captivated than ever, she eventually signed on with Salden's crew.
Researchers began referring to fast-moving melees of humpbacks as competitive groups after Salden, Stap, and others found that they almost always consist of a female pursued by a squadron of males. One suitor, known as the primary escort, tends to keep closest. Typically one of the largest males, he stays busy fending off other heavyweights, the secondary escorts. They in turn contend with males trying to get past them. The action can go on for hours at a pace that causes normally white undersides of flukes and fins to flush pink, likely with blood from exertion.
When you have anywhere from four or five to two dozen whales crisscrossing, circling, and diving past each other, it's extremely difficult to keep track of who's doing what. New contestants keep arriving, drawn to the hubbub from surrounding areas, while others peel off or simply lag farther and farther behind as they tire.