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Few sights in nature have the emotional and physical jolt of a quiet sea suddenly exploding as a 45-foot humpback whale charges above the waves, twists its 40-ton body, and crashes in a thunderous roar just yards from your boat.

Not too long ago, the crews on whaling ships were the ones who saw this show here in these waters off Maui; the delightful little town of Lahaina was built largely from the profits of the once-lucrative whaling industry.The 1859 discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, however, began to check the slaughter of whales, whose oil was used in early lamps. Finally in 1966, commercial whaling was outlawed in the North Pacific.

Today, the whalers are gone, and their prey have made something of a comeback. Fortunately, Lahaina and a growing number of whale-watchers remain. A best guess is that about 1,200 humpbacks now ply the North Pacific waters, a number far down from the estimated 15,000 at the turn of the century.

From late December until April, these waters are one of the best places in the world to observe humpbacks. As many as 800 migrate from Alaska.

Greg Kaufman, president of the Pacific Whale Foundation and co-author of "Hawaii's Humpback Whales," was on board to guide and narrate a whale-watching excursion this past season.

"Watch the horizon for a blow," he advised, as we set out from the Lahaina boatyard. A "blow," he explained, is a roughly 15-foot plume of spray exhaled from a whale as it surfaces to breathe. "First one to spot a whale gets a free T-shirt," Mr. Kaufman said.

The blowhole is actually a whale's nose, said Kaufman. "It has, over the centuries, migrated to the top of their head so they don't have to expend a great deal of energy lifting their whole head above water to breathe."

Much of the humpback whale footage in the latest "Star Trek" movie was shot here in Maui, Kaufman mentioned.

"Over there! Over there at 3 o'clock!" someone shouted, as everyone made a dash portside. Sure enough, far in the distance a spray broke the still, blue horizon, followed seconds later by a smaller wisp.

"That's the female we spotted yesterday," said Kaufman, as we moved closer, "and the small blow is her calf behind her."

Humpbacks are considered endangered marine mammals and therefore are not supposed to be killed, harmed, or harassed. "Not harassing them means we can't get closer than 100 yards. Of course, if they want to harass us by coming closer, so much the better," said Kaufman.

Another whale, much larger than the female, leaped high from the water and slapped down on its side in what is referred to as a breach. Cheers of delight erupted from the excited passengers. "That's a male," Kaufman said. "There's usually one with a female and her calf. It's probably not the father of the calf, but may well be the one the female will mate with next.

"Humpbacks make an annual 7,500-mile round trip from Alaska to Maui and back to Alaska. This is where they breed and calf. Oddly, they don't feed down here. They eat in feeding grounds in Alaskan waters, where they consume about 1,200 pounds of food a day," Kaufman told us as cameras clicked all around him.

"The tails, or flukes, you see as they dive are the whales' `mug shots,"' Kaufman's assistant told us. "That's how we identify them," she added.

Later, after the whales had disappeared into the depths, microphones were lowered into the water to pick up the humpback's "song." These sonorous, eerie sounds have been described as a variety of thumps, knocks, yups, moans, screams, chirps, cries, whistles, and clicks. As with much of the whale's behavior, little is known about these original compositions.

Roger Payne, who for years recorded the strange sounds of the humpback, has observed: "The whales don't just sing mechanically; rather, they compose as they go along, incorporating new elements into their old songs."

We saw only three whales that day, but no one was disappointed. We were told, however, that it's not unusual to spot 50 or more at the height of the season.

After the initial excitement in spotting a whale, one is left with an overwhelming sense of respect and dignity for the gentle leviathans.

No one has written of the whale with more eloquence than Herman Melville, who said in "Moby Dick": " . . . We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah's flood he despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies."

We can only hope so.

If you go:

December through April, several whale-watching excursion boats make morning and afternoon trips from Lahaina. The best are sponsored by or affiliated with the Pacific Whale Foundation. There is always a research scientist on board. Part of the fee ($20 for adults, $10 for children) goes to preserve the whales.

Trips run about 21/2 hours. The sun can be brutal, so take protective lotion, dark glasses, and hat with a visor. And don't forget camera and binoculars. A light lunch is usually served on board for about $5. Contact Pacific Whale Foundation, Kealia Beach Plaza, 101 North Kihei Rd., Kihei, Hawaii 96753, or call (808) 879-8811. The whale hot line is (808) 8879-4253.