Humpback Whale Watching

By Team
Photo:  diederich.

Photo: diederich.

Year after year, thousands of humpback whales leave their summer feeding grounds in Alaska and set course for Hawaii. Swimming at a leisurely pace of 3 to 6 mph, some will arrive as early as September and most will have completed the 3,000-mile journey in time for Christmas. Guided by the sure instinct of migratory habits, these titanics of the deep discovered the island long before jet-propelled, world travelers came seeking the warm winter sun. They came to mate, give birth and nurse their young. And what better nursery than Hawaii’s 70-degree plus waters?

Humpbacks can be spotted off all Hawaiian Islands from mid-December through mid-May. Don’t doubt that they’re out there. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback population (approximately 4,000 to 5,000 whales) migrates to Hawaiian waters each year. The waters around the main islands constitute one of the world’s most important North Pacific humpback whale habitats. This is the only place in the United States where humpbacks reproduce. And the Islands are home to a large national humpback whale marine sanctuary, which encompasses near shore waters off six islands.

Under federal protection, the humpback population is steadily rising. So if you book a ride on any of Oahu’s many boat or rafting tours during humpback season, don’t be surprised if you’re guaranteed sightings. Since these 40-ton creatures the fifth largest of the world’s great whales are considered endangered, laws prohibit boats from approaching them. When one is sighted, the captain is required to shut down his engines. This means there’s a possibility a whale will approach you. Some boats carry underwater microphones that allow you to hear whales practicing the complex, primordial vocalizations of their songs. 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.

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.
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 or just park yourself on the shore and wait for the next whale to float on by.

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