Hoku Bryan is well on his way to joining Picasso in the pages of art history.
I know this because the 11-year-old is practicing his craft right in front of me, his tongue poking out in concentration like Michael Jordan's as he sketches the outline of a humpback whale. We've met at Whale Quest, a three-day celebration of the colossal cetaceans and the research that scientists in Maui, Hawaii, have accumulated over the last year. With permission from his mother, Meile, I am able to interrupt the artist while he works.
"One time, I saw one of these swim right under our boat," he says, his dark eyes as wide as kukui nuts. "On Maui, we're lucky because we get to see them all the time."
Not all the time, but close. Every winter, thousands of humpbacks come to Hawaii to give birth in the warm waters flanking Maui and Lanai. From shore, one can spot the leviathans everywhere, jumping like ballerinas and waving their tail flukes as they descend on dives.
Despite their prevalence, however, the school bus-sized creatures remain a relative mystery to the general public. Whale Quest is designed to bridge that gap.
Sponsored by Whale Trust, a non-profit that funds local whale research, the free event aims to educate locals and visitors alike about the animals and the science that surrounds them. The program consists of lectures, videos and interactive art programs. For the seafarers, there are also discounted whale watches.
The program begins on a Friday. In a small auditorium at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, famed (and recently retired) National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin welcomes the standing-room-only crowd with stories of his time with whales. He shows us an image of a humpback floating motionless in the blue; I had a print of the same photo on my wall when I was 10.
Later, Flip hands the microphone to his father, Chuck, who in 1963 became one of the first videographers ever to capture moving images of whales underwater. These clips were well before IMAX, and eons before HD. The footage is grainy at best, and still the whales appear close enough to touch.
"These images show you how wonderful these creatures really are," Chuck says. The audience responds like the congregation at a Southern Baptist church, nodding their heads vigorously.
The next morning we meet the researchers: first Mark Ferrari, director of the local Center for Whale Studies; then Dan Salden, who heads the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. We learn that baby whales hang with their mothers for a year after birth, and that after a considerable period of decline, the local population now is growing.
Jim Darling takes the stage next. Darling heads the Canada-based West Coast Whale Research Foundation, and has spent decades studying the songs whales make when they come to Hawaii. He plays the tape for us -- haunting echoes that reverberate through my bones.
"We know these songs tell us something," Darling explains. "What that something is, we don't know yet."
That afternoon, I wander out of the auditorium to watch volunteers lead kids in a variety of whale-oriented activities. In a ballroom, against a backdrop of wooden, life-sized whale tails, youngsters learn how to identify the animals in the wild, from the black-and-white pigmentation patterns on the undersides of their flukes.
Outside, at a table overlooking Kapalua Bay, Hoku and a group of other young artists are gathered around a drawing station, slaving away at their masterpieces with pencils and crayons. Meagan Jones, executive director of Whale Trust, tells me these efforts are critical to getting children excited about whales.
"These animals are symbols for the health of the ocean," she says. "They're a powerful tool for us to teach the next generation about the environment and what we need to do to conserve it."
On my final morning in Maui, I ditch the concluding lectures for some research of my own: a Whale Quest-sponsored whale watch. Just after dawn, I board a zodiac in Lahaina Harbor and we buzz past the breakwater and into the glass-calm waters of the Au'au Channel. Precisely eight minutes into our journey, we spot the first blow.
The captain approaches gradually, so as not to startle the beast. Suddenly, a huge black body thrusts from the depths, spins around in mid-air and lands on its back with a thud. Water splashes everywhere. Passengers applaud. Quietly, I shake my head in awe and smile; considering I haven't even eaten breakfast yet, I know it's going to be a good day.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.