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The Story of ‘Eleu
‘Eleu is a North Pacific humpback whale that was sighted off the coast of Maui on January 19, 1997 in a group of four humpback whales; however, the pod composition was undetermined. 'Eleu was sighted again on March 9, 2010, in a competition pod of six humpback whales head lunging and coming close to the vessel several times.
Because this whale was sighted in Hawaii, it was given a Hawaiian name. The name ‘Eleu means active, alert, energetic, lively, nimble, quick, dexterous and spry.
When we sighted this whale, it was in a competition pod that included six whales. A competition pod is a group of whales that are essentially in competition with each other for a mate. We typically see some of the most aggressive and active humpback whale behaviors within the context of a competition pod.
While in this competition pod, ‘Eleu was head lunging. When a whale head lunges, it brings it large head above the surface of the water, sometimes angling it as much as 45 degrees. The whale then lunges forward for a brief burst of speed, sometimes ramming its head onto the side of another whale. To appear even larger, a whale might inflate its mouth with water as it lunges forward. Sometimes the whale lifts its head up and slams it down on the back of a nearby whale – a clearly aggressive act.
Humpback whales literally “use their heads” in a variety of behaviors. For example, a whale might fill its mouth with water or shake its head from side to side while swimming toward another whale. Whales may also clap their jaws or slap their heads on the ocean in other situations where aggression is warranted.
We theorize ‘Eleu is a male, because of his head lunging behavior within a competition pod. Most of the active animals in a competition pod are male, although the pod likely included a female and possibly even a calf or some subadult whales (whales that are not yet sexually mature). Competition pods can be compared to pushing and shoving matches, during which the males try to get the most advantageous position near a female. It is believed that the male who succeeds in pushing other whales away and staying nearest to the female will have the greatest likelihood of mating with her. Males can use a lot of energy during this time, engaging in the behaviors described above, as well as other behaviors including tail slashing and breaching.
The competition pods are a way of determining which males are fittest and most likely to sire healthy offspring. During the winter breeding season in Hawaii, there are approximately twice as many males as females swimming around our island waters. Because half of the females are in late pregnancy, there are even fewer available females for mating.
Whales like ‘Eleu, which spend the winter in the warm waters of Hawaii, spend their summers in cooler water areas where small fish are plentiful. These areas stretch from Southern British Columbia to the Bering Sea, and include areas off southeastern Alaska, Prince William Sound and the western Gulf of Alska. When the whales begin to arrive in Hawaii in the fall, the first to arrive are typically females with their yearling calves and subadult whales, both male and female. Mature males and females arrive next. Pregnant females are the last to appear, presumably because they are grabbing some extra food before making the long migration south.
As soon as a female becomes pregnant, she heads north, back to the feeding grounds. The immature males and females also leave early. Researchers believe that 90% of the whales stay in Hawaii for four months or less. Mothers with newborn calves remain in Hawaii the longest, in order to give their calves opportunity to grow stronger before making the long migration.
However, mature males are generally known for spending the longest time in Hawaii – about two months or more. They arrive earliest and stay around as long as there are females with whom they can mate. It appears that competition pods grow larger as the season progresses, as fewer females are available and the males become more anxious to mate before making the long journey back to their northern feeding areas.
We expect to see ‘Eleu in the future in Hawaii – perhaps again in a competition pod. We will continue to watch for this active whale and will let you know when he is sighted.