Friday, April 7, 2017

Farewell to our whale friends

A humpback whale breaching. (NOAA photo)
At the end of March, 2009, we went on a boat dive to Molokini. One of the divers complained on the way back that he hadn't seen any whales. The boat captain said the whales already left. To this the man exclaimed angrily: "The chamber of commerce said they are here until April first!" I guess the whales just didn't look at their calendar that year.

We enjoyed our whale watching season this year. Every December an estimated that 60 percent of the North Pacific humpback whale population migrates to Hawaii's waters. In spite of numerous studies, no one knows how the marine giants manage to cross open ocean from Alaska to Hawaii never veering off course by more than one degree.

The waters around Maui, Lanai and Molokai provide the perfect protected waters the whales need for their great social gathering. The channel between Maui and Lanai turns into one big nursery when the pregnant humpbacks give birth to their 2,000 pound calves. The newborns measure about 12 to 15 feet. A Humpback mother and newborn calf will stay close to shore while nursing. The calf will consume about 100 gallons of his mother's fat-rich milk a day.

The adult whales, including mothers, don't eat while they are here. The water is relatively nutrient free and too warm to support enough of the humpback's food to sustain them, so they live off their blubber.

The calf can double in length during his first year and learns whale behaviors from its mother. We would often see the mother whale breach followed by a clumsy attempt from the baby whale. We also noticed the mother and baby were often accompanied by a "teenaged" whale that seemed to be acting as an escort or bodyguard.

Male humpbacks hang around and sing. Their songs are complex and can last up to 20 minutes and can be heard up to 20 miles away. Since December, with our heads underwater, we could hear the songs and sounds of whales. No one knows exactly why, but recent studies show that male songs actually attract other males, rather than females. The male whales face the singer during the song. These encounters are usually brief and friendly. Maybe they just want to brag about their new calves.

Songs are just one of the ways whales communicate. Humpbacks emit other sounds referred to as social sounds. In addition, they use breaching, tail slapping, and fin slapping to attract attention, which works on whales and humans alike.

Breaching seems like an act of pure joy. (NOAA photo)
Last weekend, on April first, we saw a whale breach. It was beautiful and poignant because we knew it would most likely be the last one of the season.

But with the whales gone, another friend has returned. We don't know why, but while the whales were here, we spotted fewer dolphins. Maybe they can't put up with the whale's singing. Until next December, the dolphins will delight us and keep everyone company.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Creating paradise: A poet's palm forest

A glimpse of  blue sky through the dense palm forest created by poet W.S. Merwin.
W.S. Merwin's trees are an expression of hope and an attempt to heal the divide he sees between man and nature.

Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1971 and in 2009 and was chosen twice as U.S. poet laureate (1999-2000 and 2010-2011). He authored more than 50 books of poetry, translation and prose. You would think that would be his enduring legacy, but there's more.

A recurring theme in Merwin's writing is man’s separation from nature. He sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for humans and the world. By planting a tree a day for decades he reclaimed a piece of paradise that will last generations.
Part of the tour group at the palm forest.
When Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism in 1976 he bought 19 acres of a failed pineapple plantation. Most of the soil was eroded away. He found about the only thing he could grow on it was Hawaii's native coconut palms.

He worked rebuilding the soil and planting different palm tree species from around the world. Most days he and his wife planted a tree, then he would meditate and write poems. Eventually he had a dense and diverse palm forest where before there was nothing but bare rock and played-out soil.
Most days Merwin meditates and writes in the screened-in porch built behind the potting shed.
The forest has more than 2,740 individual palm trees, with more than 400 taxonomic species and 125 unique genera, and nearly 900 different horticultural varieties. It is recognized as one of the largest and most extensive palm collections known to exist on earth, according to the Merwin Conservancy, the group formed to preserve the forest indefinitely.

A couple times a month, members of the conservancy and the professional gardener Merwin hired 10 years ago, lead a free tour through the palm forest. I signed up for one. Virginia and I and two young friends who drove us went to Haiku on Maui to meet with about 10 others for the three-hour tour. It was a fun and beautiful experience.
The professional gardener Merwin hired 10 years ago explains features of the palm forest.
Our only criticism was the guides need to spend more time walking and less time talking. I welcomed hearing the poetry and the stories, but some of the minutia could be cut to improve the focus.

One good story was about a palm from Madagascar. When a scientific expedition went to document the palms of Madagascar a few years ago, they couldn’t find this particular palm and feared it was extinct. They contacted Merwin (now recognized as an expert in palms, in addition to poetry). He told the biologists he had a few in his forest and would send them some seeds. Later they found the palm growing in an isolated area on Madagascar, but by then they used Merwin’s seeds to help reestablish it in other places on the island.

We enjoyed the tour, especially seeing the lush palm forest and the porch behind Merwin's potting shed where he meditates and writes. Like his poetry, the forest he created heals the soul.


"Place"
by W.S. Merwin

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

(from The Rain in the Trees, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Feeling the love on Maui

A big part of Maui's beauty is found underwater, like this green seaturtle or honu'.
Part of what inspired us to go cruising was our first trip to Maui. The island and surrounding sea were even more beautiful than we imagined and the weather was perfect. I almost cried when we had to leave. What really got my juices flowing during that first visit was a cruising boat anchored at a popular snorkel site called Coral Gardens. I imagined us blissfully at anchor, diving into the clear warm water from the deck of our own boat. We could snorkel and dive at one of Maui's prime dive spots anytime we wanted. I started dreaming of sailing to tropical islands when I was 13. Seeing that cruising boat anchored at Coral Gardens brought the dream into sharp focus.
Oceanus anchored off Olowalu just north of Coral Gardens.
Seven years after our first visit, we bought Oceanus and began working on her restoration and refit. We visualized each project bringing us closer to the picture of us anchored off Maui. For the most part, the reality is even better than the dream. Especially now that our diesel mechanic friend helped me fix our engine. He diagnosed the problem right away -- a stuck fuel cut-off valve on our newly-rebuilt fuel injection pump. But fixing it took nearly eight weeks because of his heavy work schedule (he could only help us on his days off), other projects he recommended, and waiting for parts (Maui is like a third-world country in that regard).
The view of the highway tunnel from anchor at Coral Gardens.
Once the engine was fixed, the first place we wanted to go was Coral Gardens. For a couple of days we and our boat provided the inspiration for other people's dreams. While at anchor there, a familiar boat picked up a mooring about 100 yards away. It was the Four Winds II. On our first trip to Maui our big splurge was a snorkel trip to Molokini Crater on Four Winds II. The 55-foot catamaran was under the command of Captain John. It was 10 years since that adventure and Captain Johnisms still pepper our private conversations. We found his patter during the voyage -- especially his "rules" -- hilarious. After each "rule" (like leaving your shirt tag out, no kicking like a bicyclist while snorkeling, or not wiping your nose after taking your mask off ) he would say "no lunch for you." He also cautioned his snorkelers to pay attention and return to Four Winds so they didn't end up on the other snorkel boats, all of which (according to Captain John) only served Spam for lunch.
Four Winds II at Coral Gardens.
We were about to jump in the water ourselves and ended up snorkeling together with the Four Winds II guests. Before heading back to our boat, we told one of the crew what a great time we had 10 years ago and how much we enjoyed Captain John. “He’s aboard today,” he said, “come aboard and say hi.” We were delighted and a little surprised (since he seemed old 10 years ago). We climbed aboard and found Captain John as affable and witty as ever. He didn’t look a day older either. After a visit, we swam back to our boat. A short time later, Four Winds II left their mooring. As they motored past, Captain John coned his hands around his mouth and yelled, “See you in 10 more years.” As beautiful as Maui is, it’s the people who make it special. The locals are friendly and always ready to help. They truly practice aloha.
Pu'u Olai or Red Hill as seen from our anchorage at Big Beach
After we anchored at Big Beach, we went around Pu'u Olai (Red Hill) to check out the snorkeling there. A Pacific Whale Foundation snorkel boat was at a mooring. Virginia hailed them on the VHF to ask if they had any diet pepsi on board. She told them she would swim over with a dollar. Minutes later another Pacific Whale snorkel boat came into the anchorage aiming right for our boat. Over their loudspeaker the captain told us he had a plastic container of Coke for us. They tossed it to us. Everyone listens over channel 16 on the VHF! One of the first times we landed on Kama'ole Beach at Kihei, a local named Steve introduced himself and immediately offered to drive us anywhere we wanted to go. We took him up on a lift to the auto-parts store. He then gave us his phone number so we could call him anytime we needed a ride. Steve is not unusual. In fact, we find that he is the rule, not the exception, among the locals on Maui. Nick is another example. Shortly after we met Steve, we were sitting in our cockpit fretting over our engine troubles when Nick motored up in a small runabout. We talked about our boat and he told us he skippered a large catamaran out of Maalaea Harbor. In fact, he heard the whole Pepsi story on channel 16. We asked him if he knew of any good diesel mechanics on the island and he put us in contact with Keith. Keith proved to be a Godsend. Not only is he a great marine diesel mechanic, he also has a Perkins diesel like ours on his boat. And he's a heck of a nice guy.
The view from our mooring: rainbows to the east...



Sunsets to the west.
To make it convenient for Keith to work on our boat, we sailed from Kihei to Lahaina and anchored near Mala Wharf. Lahaina always figured large in our Hawaiian cruising plans. It looked like the perfect base from which to explore the west side of Maui and the islands of Lanai and Molokai.
A couple of weeks after anchoring off Mala we met Cory, another local. After a short conversation, he offered to rent us his registered mooring for $50 a month, since he just scored a sublease on a slip in the Lahaina Marina for his boat. We jumped at the offer, especially after he said he would put in all new chain, mooring ball and rope. Having a mooring makes it even easier to come and go on our exploring expeditions. We found the roadstead off Mala to be a great place to hang out. It's one of the few places where we can land the dinghy without getting our feet wet. It's a great place to tie up the dinghy too. Water is available and there's a place to dump our garbage and recyclables. It's an easy walk to three different grocery stores, Barnes & Noble, two different pharmacies, a laundromat and our church.
Lahaina's famous Front Street is just a short walk from Mala Wharf.
Lahaina’s famous Front Street -- filled with shops, galleries and restaurants -- is an easy 10-minute walk. Every few weeks we walk down and enjoy the atmosphere. We even found a used book store on Front Street where we replenish our book supply.
Marsha, her dog Fin and grandson Xavier
at the Lahaina Halloween Keiki Parade.
We are also not far from the home of Marsha, a high school classmate and friend, who drives us places and lets us borrow her car when we need it. We feel like part of her family and enjoy the hugs from her three grandchildren. By boat we are close to most of the best snorkel and dive spots. Black Rock is only a few minutes away and the east side of Lanai is only a 1½ hour sail. Not only is it wonderful snorkeling and diving, but it’s it a good place to escape when the Kona winds make our roadstead uncomfortable and dangerous. We haven’t gotten to Molokai yet, but we will soon. Molokai is known as “The Friendly Isle” although the locals there will have their work cut out for them to top those from “The Valley Isle” of Maui.

The Black Rock from the deck of Oceanus.


The West Maui Mountains viewed from aboard Oceanus while underway.