See Humpback Whales in the Wild

By Team

Baby humpback near Makena, Maui. Photo: member Daniel B.

Year after year, thousands of humpback whales leave their summer feeding grounds in Alaska and set course for Hawaii. Swimming at a leisurely rate of 3 to 6 mph, some will arrive as early as September and most will have completed the 3,500-mile journey in time for Christmas.

Guided by the sure instinct of migratory habits, these 40-ton titanics of the deep discovered the islands long before jet-propelled world travelers came seeking the warm winter sun. They came to mate, give birth and nurse their young.

Populations on the Rise!

A rare sight from our Zodiac whale-watch boat! This curious female Humpback spy-hopped for a better look, and went under the boat a few times…this time she was upside-down, showing off her acrobatic prowess. She stayed with us for at least 20 minutes. Photo: member Margot S. near Lahaina, Maui.

There was a time when the North Pacific humpback stock may have numbered 15,000 animals. By 1966, probably due to commercial whaling, the count was estimated at fewer than 1,000. In the 1970s, humpback whales were added to the endangered species list and protected under federal laws. In 2016 most humpback whales were removed from the endangered species list. Their numbers have drastically increased from 1966. The North Pacific humpback stock is now at least 15,000, with estimates as high as 18-20,000 and growing! Over 10,000 of these beautiful creatures make Hawaii their winter home. They are still covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, however, and boating regulations continue to hold.

Laws prohibit boats from approaching them. When one is sighted, the captain is required to put his engine in neutral until the whale departs. Some boats carry underwater microphones that carry the sounds of whales. Humpbacks produce a wide array of sounds, including the highest and lowest frequencies that can be heard by the human ear. That sound travels for miles underwater. If you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

How to Spot a Humpback

This breach is the moment that started it all- my love for the incredible humpback whale. I am mesmerized by their water dances. Their songs. Their unique belly markings. Their yearly journey to Hawaii. Their nuturing souls. Photo: member Hannah P. near Poipu, Kauai.

Humpbacks exhibit a variety of behaviors that should be visible in one form or another from boats and shoreline lookouts. You might see a whale blow. You might see mothers teaching calves to breach, or males competing with one another in head-to-head combat. You could get a look at their lumbering acrobatics or catch a breach, which means the animal has propelled itself out of the water, generally clearing the surface with two-thirds of its body or more.

Perennial Whales

False killer whale encountered off of Kaanapali, Maui. Photo: Alan Moore.

Humpbacks, by the way, aren’t the only game in town. Hawaiian waters are home to year-round residents including Sperm Whales, Pygmy Killer and False Killer whales, Pilot, Beaked and Melon Headed whales. Learn more about year-round whales in Hawaii.

How to Catch a Humpback Performance

Photo: Star-Advertiser.

There are many ways to catch a humpback performance. Book a catamaran, buy a ticket on a Zodiac raft, rent a kayak, take a helicopter tour, find a lookout with a viewscope and signage like the one at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge — or just park yourself on the shore and wait for the next whale to pass by.

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