One thing is certain on our daily whale watches from Lahaina, Ka‘anapali and Ma‘alaea: The humpbacks are back. For islanders, it’s our indicator that the winter season has begun when our gentle giants return to the waters of their birth and for visitors, it’s a once in a lifetime experience observing these marine mammals in our crystal clear waters, wild and free. The first humpbacks of the 2015/2016 winter were spotted off Kaua’i on September 29th, by researchers of the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai, though official whale season in Hawai’i is from December 15th to April 15th. The peak of whale season is mid-February, so it’s an especially exciting time to be on the water with more whales arriving daily.
Why they migrate
Humpback whales are a “cosmopolitan” species, meaning that they occur in all oceans of the world. Maui is one of the best places in the world to observe humpback whales, as our nearshore waters offer a warm, shallow, protected place for humpbacks to mate and give birth. However, they don’t stay in Maui waters all year round, as they are not feeding the entire time they are here! The whales we see are a part of the North Pacific population that feed in the cold, nutrient rich, productive waters off Southeast Alaska, and then undergo one of the longest migrations in the natural realm to reach Maui County to reproduce far away from predators.
Though Maui waters are the perfect nursery-warm, shallow, and lacking in natural predators (killer whales are known to target humpback newborns), there is little to no food available to for humpback whales in our clear, tropical waters. Humpbacks are filter feeders, using their baleen to sift through mouthfuls of ocean water to feast on small planktonic animals such as krill and small schooling fishes such as capelin and anchovies, and tropical waters are notoriously nutrient poor and low in primary production- hence the clear water. The distance from the North Pacific feeding grounds to the breeding/birthing grounds is more than 3,000 miles, and individual whales have been known to complete the migration in as little as 36 days.
Humpback whales arrive via a trickle migration, meaning that rather than migrate en force with their entire population arriving in Hawai’i at once, individual whales choose to migrate between Alaska and Hawai’i during the general winter season, with the most whales overlapping in midwinter. Females either mating or giving birth will stay in Hawaiian waters around 4-6 weeks, while males hoping to pass on their genes may stick around for up to 2 months.
Differences in migration due to El Niño
As is readily apparent in Maui, 2015/2106 is an El Niño year. El Nino weather patterns occur when easterly trade winds in the Pacific weaken and warm waters move toward the eastern side of the Pacific basin. We’ve observed warmer waters all summer and coral bleaching due to this change in water conditions from El Niño. With the effects of rising seas surface temperatures, scientists have noticed differences in animal behaviors and migrations due to the weather pattern as well. Humpback whales were observed feeding up the Columbia River in Oregon in fall 2015, an unusual behavior and destination for humpbacks. It’s thought that they were up the river basin since the normal feeding grounds had higher than normal temperatures, moving fish schools to different locations. Similarly, though humpbacks were first spotted around the normal time in Hawai’i, it’s thought that that their numbers seem more irregular this year than past normal years. This could be that humpbacks spent more time in high latitude feeding grounds and their prey are also scattered more widely than normal.
World class whale watching on Maui
Going on a whale watch in Maui is truly an unforgettable experience. It’s one of the largest congregations of humpbacks during a limited season anywhere in the world- the North Pacific population is estimated to be around 22,000 this year, with 60% of the population migrating to the breeding ground in the Maui Nui basin. Our humpback breeding ground is in the nearshore waters right in between Maui, Lana’i and Kaho’olawe, meaning that you’ll be seeing whales breaching practically as soon as the boat is out of the harbor- no long boat rides out to the whales for us! Combine the sheer number of humpbacks in Maui waters with the crystal clear clarity of our waters, and you’ll truly have an experience that’s breathtaking and unlike anywhere else.
Male humpbacks also form competition pods when visiting Maui waters in the breeding season, competing for the affections of a female by performing physical feats that aim to oust the competing males. This leads to large temporary aggregations of males following a female; breaching, head lunging and tail throwing to win her attention. It’s amazing to see these 50 ton, 45-foot-long animals throwing themselves around- it really puts their size into perspective!
Not only do we see whales, we also are privileged to hear them sing. Male humpbacks sing haunting, beautiful songs, with repeated words, phrases and themes, when in the breeding grounds. On Trilogy whale watches, our crew will lower a hydrophone into the water, and guests are treated to a whale song serenade while they snack on tasty sandwiches and sip refreshing cocktails. Hard to go wrong, huh?
How we can protect whales
The history of the humpback whale species is one of the most hopeful conservation success stories. Long hunted for their blubber, humpbacks whales were exploited as a commodity until their species was hunted nearly to extinction. The north Pacific population was estimated to be less than 1,000 individual whales in in the late 1960s. When Trilogy first started running eco-excursions, we were lucky to spot any whales at all during full days on the water, even in the middle of whale season. As public outcry grew for protection of these amazing marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in the United States in 1972, protecting all marine mammals from any kind of take or harassment, followed by the establishment of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, protecting the Maui Nui Basin home for the whales.
The population responded to these levels of protection, growing up to 6% a year! Though the population is much healthier- around 22,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific- the species is not out of the woods yet. Whales still need our care and protection. Each one of us can do our part to continue to save the whales- whether it’s a direct action like supporting marine protected areas like the Sanctuary or reducing our reliance on single- use plastics that litter the ocean habitat of these gentle giants. Check out this list to learn more about what you can do to help save the whales, whether you live on Maui or far away from the ocean. Mahalo for your kokua towards our giants of the sea!