By Matt Villano, on March 6, 2014

Maui whales through time

Visit Maui between January and April and you’re likely to encounter more humpback whales than native Hawaiians. You don’t even have to get on a boat to go and see them; the leviathans are so close to shore you can spot them from your car, from the barefoot bars of Ka’anapali beach, or—if you’re lucky—from the lanai of your hotel room.

Consider the animals the marine mammal equivalent of Florida snowbirds; they come down every year from Alaska to mate and birth and rear their young. Recent estimates indicate there can be more than 10,000 in the Au’Au Channel between Maui and Lanai at any one time; significant numbers when you consider that the species was thought to be endangered not too long ago. Judging from the number of baby whales that show up every year, it’s a safe bet the population is still growing.

Because I’m a whalehead (in other words, because I *really* like whales), I drag my family out for whale season at least once a year. We take a few whale-watches. We get the binoculars and track them from shore. Some years, I even attend scientific lectures about issues like vocalizations and reproductive strategy.

But our most recent trip got me thinking: What was Maui like when people killed these creatures instead of watching them? What was the vibe in Lahaina during the height of Hawaiian whaling?

The new DreamWorks film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which hits theaters March 7, inspired me to take this mental exercise even farther. In the film, the two main characters travel through time with the help of a machine called a WABAC (pronounced “way back”). If I had one, I’d use it to travel from the present back to the 1840s in Lahaina.

I’m sure the initial scene would be quite a shock—giant ships returning with sailors who bragged of harpooning giant whales just off shore, lugging the leviathans aboard and flensing them (this is a fancy way of describing the process of cutting off blubber in thick segments) right there in the stern of the craft. In the bars that line Front Street, I’d listen incredulously as the “whalemen” bragged about lugging those baleen strips into the tryworks to boil them down for the valuable oil. I’d imagine the bacon-like stench of burning blubber. And I’d probably get sick to my stomach just hearing about it.

So I’d ditch my beer and head out for fresh air. Down near the harbor, I’d watch as wharf rats unload barrel after barrel of the oil for storage or trade. Then I’d wander past shops along Lahainaluna Road and see in the windows corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips containing “whalebone,” or hardened baleen from a humpback’s mouth.

Hopefully I’d be able to avoid the fights—epic rows between sailors, who wanted Polynesian girlfriends, and chiefs and missionaries, who wanted order. I’m sure many of these clashes resulted in fisticuffs; I know one ended when the crew of a ship fired cannonballs at the home of a reverend. (Seriously.)

Viewfinder Tip: Go whale-watching from modern-day Lahaina Harbor in the morning, as the water is calmer earlier in the day.

And hopefully I’d bear witness other impacts of whaling, such as how the demand for fresh water on the ships spurred the installation of the first transmission pipes in Hawaii, and how the industry sparked cottage businesses such as sail makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, laundries, bakeries and more. IMHO, these are the changes that have had the most lasting effect on the islands; I’ve read (in exhibits at the Whalers Village Museum) that four of the five companies that later dominated the islands’ economy got their start as merchants or suppliers to whalers.

In short, my trip back in time probably wouldn’t be pretty, but it’d be real. I’d like to think that returning to experience the mayhem and unchecked development of the whaling era first-hand would give me a newfound appreciation for the Lahaina—and the whales—we know today. There’s something idyllic and wonderful about the peaceful vibe Maui has now. Let’s hope it stays that way for many years to come.

If you had a WABAC machine, where would you go, and in what era would you go there?