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Hanging Loose in Maui: a Whale of a Family Vacation

Polo_beach_club We spent a relaxing mid-winter break in Hawaii last week, staying at the Polo Beach Club in (or near) Wailea on Maui, the same spot where Amy and I honeymooned nearly 20 years ago. This stay was a little different than the last time - I don't want to say the honeymoon is over, but we are no longer newlyweds (or not "just Mauied", in local tourist T-shirt jargon), and staying there with a 16 year old daughter and 12 year old son added an entirely new dimension to the experience.

The area is far more developed than the last time we visited, when it seemed like the Polo Beach Club was the only sign of human habitation in sight (the photo in the top right is from around that time period)... and in some dimensions, I suppose we are more developed - as individuals, as a couple and now a family. After walking, driving and kayaking around the area, I still think this is the best place to stay in Maui, if one wants to get "up close and personal" with the ocean ... and its inhabitants.

Humpback whale breaching off Papawai Point (cropped)Aside from familial changes, one of the key differences this time was seasonal changes, as we were visiting in February rather than August ... whale season (!). We saw hundreds of whales [and we really saw whales this time, unlike the last time I wrote about watching for whales, but [only] seeing what I wanted to see (rather than what really was - or, more specifically, was not - there) during our last family vacation, along the Oregon coast]. I snapped hundreds, but ultimately uploaded only a few dozen, of photos of the humpback whales we saw off Maui to my Flickr account. We saw them from our balcony, we saw them from the beach, we saw them from kayaks, we saw them from our car, we saw them from restaurants and shops ... we saw them nearly everywhere we went.

We could also hear the whales singing when we went snorkeling - sometimes rather loudly. Prompted by a comment by Dana on an earlier post on music and personality, I discovered a transcript from the log of the 5 year Voyage of the Odyssey entitled The Ocean's Elaborate Composers, which offered more information about the whale songs:

A song can be defined as one or more notes that are repeated in a pattern. Technically, the repeated sounds of birds, frogs and even crickets are songs. Yet, it is the song of the Humpback whale that is the most grand and complex in the animal kingdom.

As Roger Payne wrote in his book, Among Whales -

"They are divided into repeating phrases called themes. When the phrase is heard to change (usually after a few minutes), it heralds the start of a new theme. Songs contain from two to nine themes and are strung together without pauses so that a long singing session is an exuberant, uninterrupted river of sound that can flow on for twenty-four hours or longer".

Themes are sung in a deliberate order, with the entire song lasting anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. Humpbacks even employ rhymes in their songs; perhaps this helps them to remember them, a trick which is also used in human composition. Male humpbacks have been known to sing for hours, even days.

We made recordings of each vocalization throughout the afternoon. Each song lasted an average of seventeen to twenty minutes before the animal surfaced. The whale took only three breaths in quick succession before diving again.

Remarkably, all male humpback whales from the same population sing the same song, while the songs of each population are quite distinct from one another. This means that the structure and content of all of the songs we recorded today are the same, yet different from a whale that may also be singing today in his mating grounds in the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. As Roger Payne observed "Humpback whales change their songs continually so that after about five years they are singing an entirely new song and apparently do not ever return to the original".

Canonef75300mmiiiusmlens Dakotaeliteweatherproof10x42binocul I was delightfully obsessed with the whales during our stay ... but I'll move on to another obsession: photography. Shortly after starting our Oregon vacation, the scenery was so beautiful along the coast that I went out and bought a Canon EOS 40D / Digital Rebel XTi (my first digital SLR camera). Shortly after starting this vacation, and seeing all the whales, and feeling frustrated with not being able to get closer to them (photographically speaking), I went out and bought a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM Telephoto Zoom Lens - and a Dakota Elite Weatherproof 10x42 Binocular (to watch whales without photographing them) from Ritz Camera. While I was happy to be able to take many more closeup photos of the whales during my stay, upon closer inspection, few of the images were not blurred (one of the reasons I uploaded so few photos to my Flickr account), so I plan to return the lens for one of the Image Stabilization (IS) lenses (perhaps the ultracompact Diffractive Optics (DO) version).

More whale watching on the HinaWe did make attempts to get physically closer to the whales. We enjoyed a two-hour Hawaiian sailing canoe adventure on the Hina (which docks - or I should probably say "beaches" - at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel, next door to the Polo Beach Club), during which we learned about the local geography, history, ecology and culture, and saw sea turtles and numerous colorful fish while snorkeling. Unfortunately, although most of the times we saw the Hina from our condo, it was near whales (an example is shown in the photo to the right), we saw no whales from the Hina the day we went out, though we did hear them while we were snorkeling.

Whale watching via kayakSo, another day, we rented two-seater sea kayaks - also at the Fairmont Hotel beach - and set off on our own to get up close and personal with these magnificent mammals. We managed to approach within approximately 100 yards of a few whales - which is, as I understand it, the closest that any boat is supposed to get to a whale - but not nearly as close as some other kayaks seemed to get (an extreme example is shown on the left). However, we got close enough to enough whales that the kids decided that they didn't want to go out on a whale watching boat at the Pacific Whale Foundation. We read about a boat that had gone out two weeks before we arrived that had been the victim of a "whale mugging", where they were stranded in the water for over an hour while whales were swimming around the boat (boats aren't supposed to move when whales are within 100 yards). In retrospect, I think it would have been fun to go out on a whale watch boat the first day, if only to learn more about - and thus be able to better appreciate - the whales we saw (and heard) so much of.

We also went snorkeling in the Ahini-Kinau Preserve, down around the southern tip of the island - well some of us did (Amy, Meg and me ... Evan had a sore ankle that morning). We saw more sea turtles, tropical fish and coral ... and as the preserve volunteers warned us, discovered that "the rocks are alive" - I cut my thumb and finger, and got a sliver of some kind in another finger, while walking on my hands out beyond the shallow, rocky area on the shore. We rented snorkeling gear from Maui Dive Shop - $25/week for the "deluxe" package (which comes with better gear than the $15 "standard" package) - and I think it would have been worthwhile to inquire about and/or invest in gloves, as I saw many other snorkelers wearing. Also, even though we snorkeled in the morning (around 9:30 or 10:00), I got sunburned after only 45 minutes, so wearing sunblock and/or a tee shirt, even before "peak" sunlight hours, would also have been worthwhile ... an aspect for which I could have been better prepared if I'd read up on some snorkeling tips (update: expanded into The Ultimate Guide to Snorkling) before setting out. Fortunately, this happened on our last full day on the island, so it had minimal impact (there).

Family Photo OpBack on terra firma, another obsession I / we indulged during the vacation was gustatory exploration. Among our favorite restaurants from this visit are:

  • Spago (best combination of food, service, decor and view, most romantic ... and most expensive)
  • Sansei (tie for best food and service, with good decor but no view)
  • Mama's Fish House (very good food, service and view)
  • Tommy Bahama (very good food, service, decor and entertainment, but no view)
  • Seawatch (good food and service, very good decor, outstanding view, site of family photo op to the right)
  • Who Cut the Cheese (not a restaurant, per se, but a wine & cheese shop where we picked up an array of fine cheeses - including 5 year old Gouda and Roaring Forties - and a bottle of Hartford 2005 Russian River Zinfandel, which we enjoyed back at the condo)

Full reviews for all of these restaurants - with more details about which menu items and other specific aspects we liked (and didn't like), and several photos I took at each one (with my iPhone, not my Canon telephoto lens) - can be found on my Yelp profile page. I'll simply note that we tried - and enjoyed - Ahi rolls of some kind at nearly all of these establishments ... and include a few sample photos below.

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We ate a lot of fish while on Maui, and Evan was initially interested in indulging a related passion (that isn't quite an obsession ... for him ... yet) - catching fish. We'd gone fishing during earlier vacations to Cabo, Mexico (which was great), and Tampa, Florida (which was not so great), so we looked into possibilities on Maui. I found an excellent web site on Maui sport fishing, created and maintained - I might say "captained" - by Captain Mike Crawford. Captain Mike was very helpful - via telephone and email - in helping us explore the different options regarding harbors, fishing times, days and the age of my son (and my desire to be simply a "rider", as I'm not much of a fisherman). Unfortunately, I didn't contact Mike early enough to find a boat that would fit our schedule - and our desire for a relatively short trip - but maybe next time.

One dimension of potential obsession that we observed but in which we did not indulge was Mustang convertibles. I've never seen so many Mustang convertibles before. I can't remember what kind of car we rented in 1988, but the 1988 Ford Mustang was not a car that I found particularly appealing, and I doubt I would have been willing to pay an upgrade fee to drive one. In 2008, however, I would have gladly paid extra to drive one of the new 2008 Mustang convertibles ... but alas, with four people, and a full load of luggage, that would not have been practical (or even possible, without renting a second car). Instead, we got a free upgrade to a Cadillac, which was fine.

Speaking of car rentals, some of the lessons we learned about traveling to / from / within Maui include the following:

  • The Enterprise Rental Car facility near Kahalui Airport (OGG) closes at 9:00pm. I nearly always use Enterprise wherever I go (I've waxed poetic about my experience of great customer care at Enterprise - and United Airlines - in an earlier blog post), and had a reservation with Enterprise this trip, but when our flight out of Los Angeles was delayed, we were rescheduled to arrive around 10:00pm. Fortunately, although the Hertz counter at OGG [also] closes at 9:00pm, the off-site facility stays open until 11:00pm, so I was able to book a new reservation at Hertz - for a lower rate than I'd gotten many months ago when I originally booked the Enterprise reservation - while we were waiting at LAX.
  • The United Airlines ticket counter at OGG has a priority line for their Premier, 1K, First Class and Global Services members. However, the agents behind the counter did not accord any priority to people in this line (while we were in it). There were only two agents in front of the priority queue, and another five in front of the main queue; when one of the priority queue agents got sidetracked - for at least the half hour we were in line - helping one family, none of the other agents to the right appeared to notice or respond by signaling to people waiting in the priority queue ... and, unfortunately, none of the people ahead of us in the priority queue appeared to be sufficiently assertive to compensate for this lack of agent response (perhaps they were still on "island time") ... until I stepped forward to offer some gentle "prompting". This was all after having the unexpected extra measure of some kind of agriculturally-focused luggage pre-screening, and before the long security lines, which unlike SEA and LAX (and SFO and nearly every other U.S. airport I've been to), did not have a priority queue for frequent fliers with "status". I mention all this because we arrived at the airport with the recommended 90 minutes of lead time for our 10:00pm "red-eye" flight, which I expected was more than enough time, given the priority queues I'm used to elsewhere, and we barely made it through all the lines in time for our flight (which they had intended to have depart early). So, [frequent] flier beware!

Despite the sleep deprivation of the red-eye flight, compounded by a [scheduled] 2+ hour layover in San Francisco on the way back to Seattle, we would still choose this option again - though allotting 2 hours for navigating the queues at OGG - as it allowed us an extra day of sightseeing and whale watching (from shore), culminating with a delicious sunset meal at the beach (at Mama's), a fitting end to a Maui-velous vacation.

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