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Whaling was a way of life that was romanticized with the promise of adventure and great fortune…
What a difference a couple hundred years make. In the early to mid-1800s, the whaling industry became the primary source of jobs and economic growth on Maui for about 40 years. When the spotter cried, “Thar she blows!” it was signal to the whaling ship’s officers that humpbacks were in the vicinity. Whaling was a way of life that was romanticized with the promise of adventure and great fortune, but sadly humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction.
Twice per year, whaling ship crews sailed to Lahaina to restock provisions, make arrangements to transport their bounty of oil and whale bone back to mainland America, and to allow crew members time to rest and relax. Although these were years of great prosperity, diseases brought to the Islands by these sailors took a heavy toll on the Native Hawaiian population. And Hawaiian chiefs and Christian missionaries were forced to establish laws regulating drinking, gambling, and prostitution, as well as build the jail that still stands today (open to the public) on Prison Street to house those who failed to abide by the laws.
Fast forward to today, when humpback whales are considered an endangered species protected by the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972). It’s estimated 12,000 of these wonderful creatures spend the winter in Hawaiian breeding and calving grounds. We even have our very own designated whale sanctuary: the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is the only preserve in the U.S. dedicated to a marine mammal.
During whale season, approximately November through May, a cry of “thar she blows!” causes everyone on a whale watching excursion to flock to one side of the boat, with camera at ready, in hopes of capturing an image of one of these gentle giants breaching.
The best place to learn about the whaling industry is to visit the Whale Museum at Whalers Village in Ka‘anapali, where you will view one of the world’s largest collections of scrimshaw (intricate drawings carved on whale teeth), and find out what’s being done today to preserve this important animal species. This upstairs museum is the third most-visited attraction on Maui. Here you can see displays depicting the life of whalers and the hardships they endured, antique ornaments and utensils made from whale ivory and bone, plus one of the world’s largest scale models of a whaling ship. You’ll see a recreated ship forecastle, which shows how 25 men lived in cramped quarters on voyages that lasted as long as five years.
The museum also offers free movies, including the award-winning documentary “In the Wake of Giants” on NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Large Marine Mammal Response Network. This highly skilled team risks their lives to rescue 45-ton whales from marine debris. The museum charges a small admission fee which supports the rich history of Lahaina and Hawai‘i’s marine sanctuary, and includes three hours of free parking validation at Whalers Village Shopping Center.
The Whale Museum at Whalers Village is Open Daily from 10am to 6pm, Phone 808-661-5992 for more information.
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