Published: January 2007
Douglas H. Chadwick

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Do I really need to describe what was best about doing a story on socially complex fellow mammals that are fantastic singers, possibly as intelligent as they are colossal, and like to leap from the sea and occasionally come over to visit with you eye-to-eye? In Hawaii's clear, warm, blue waters? For part of three winter seasons? With enthusiastic researchers on the cutting edge of animal behavior? I didn't think so.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Flying over the Au'au Channel in a helicopter, I looked down and saw something swimming in the water that was the size of a small bus. I thought it must be a young humpback. On further inspection, I realized that it was a shark—a very long, very wide tiger shark. Unfortunately, the memory of that giant would pop up from time to time when I was snorkeling out there in the middle of the channel, helping the scientists in the water by acting as a safety companion or observer.

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

When I accompanied researcher Jason Sturgis as he snorkeled over to record the behavior of a lone male on his video camera, we found the animal in a typical posture assumed by singers. It was positioned with its head down at a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters), its pectoral fins spread wide, and its tail toward the surface, perhaps 30 feet (9 meters) below us. After about ten minutes, without seeming to move a single muscle, the male somehow started to come up tail-first, ascending as though someone had pumped a little extra air into its lungs. This was very unusual, for humpbacks usually swim to the surface head first. More disconcerting still was the fact that Jason and I were directly above the tail, and it was rising faster by the second. Both of us began kicking as quickly as we could to move aside. By the time the whale's tail met the surface and made a single huge stroke to propel the body downward, we were still too close. The currents generated by that massive thrust sent both Jason and me washing away in swirls of energy. I felt about as mighty as a piece of plankton in the presence of that giant. I'd still like to know how the whale suddenly changed its buoyancy to float up from the depths with no more effort than a balloon.