8 Facts About Humpback Whales You Probably Never Knew

8 Facts About Humpback Whales You Probably Never Knew

Today, research suggests that up to 12,000 whales could potentially visit Hawaii each winter—which is astounding progress from the dire figures a little over 40 years ago. What's more, is that in addition to the increase in numbers themselves, researchers have been able to learn valuable information about our favorite winter visitors.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Whale Season

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Whale Season

Maui has experienced one of the best Whale Seasons to date this year! Enjoy this aerial footage of humpback whales including mother and calf cruising around Olowalu, HI.

Thar She Blows! An Intro To Common Whale Behavior On Maui Whale Watching Tours

WE GOT MUGGED! Watch to the end as a humpback whale makes a spy hop to check out our boat yesterday. An unforgettable experience for all! Trilogy boats do not approach whales within 100 yards, however, whales are curious animals that occasionally come up to check us out.

Whale season in Maui is finally upon us, and our Maui whale watching tours are reporting amazing sightings on every trip that heads out. While we can always guarantee humpback sightings during our whale watching tours in Maui, no two tours over the course of the season are ever completely the same. Even if you've been on a whale watch before, or dozens over the course of your lifetime, there is always the chance that taking one more tour could offer a new experience.

When whale watching in Maui,  it isn't the total number of whales that's really very important. Instead, it's what those whales are doing that can make the difference in a whale watch. After all, what would you rather see during a Maui whale watching tour? An ocean full of whales which are just logging at the surface, or a handful of whales which are breaching, pec slapping, spyhopping, and peduncle-throwing their way across the ocean? Humpbacks are known as the most acrobatic of all the world's whale species, and if you can't quite name all the "moves" that humpbacks have in their repertoire, here is a guide which you can use to decipher the most common humpback maneuvers.

Tail Slap

A whale tail hello! Enjoy a tail slap. . ***This video was taken following Dolphin SMART's criteria for responsible wildlife viewing. For more info, check out: http://bit.ly/2hh7mPI *** . . Follow Us: YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/trilogyexcu... Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sail.Trilogy/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sailtrilogy/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/SailTrilogy Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/trilogymaui/

Vigorous tail slapping is one of the easiest maneuvers to spot on a Maui whale watching tour. Striking the water with their powerful flukes, a whale will repeatedly splash against the water anywhere from 3-30 times.

Peduncle Wave

Lisa Graham pec wave watermark border
Lisa Graham pec wave watermark border

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

Despite being the world's 5th largest whale, humpback whales have the largest fin of any animal in the sea (even longer than the fin of a blue whale, whose short fins are similar to a T-Rex dinosaur with short, stumpy arms). More than just being long, the pectoral fin is also incredibly agile, and it's what helps the humpbacks with their aerial maneuvers and ability to twist through the water. Sometimes a whale will wave its pectoral fin, while other times it will repeatedly strike it against the surface of the water.

Spy Hop

Photo Credit: Captain Katie

Not seen as often as a pec wave or a tail slap, a spy hop is when a whale will poke straight out of the water to scan what's happening above the surface. Humpback whales have just as good vision above water as they do below water, and here a very inquisitive humpback spy hops to check us out.

Peduncle Throw

MindsEye_PJ on Flickr

While not entirely as common as a breach, a peduncle throw is an aggressive maneuver where a humpback whale will throw the latter half of its body out of the water. The peduncle muscle that comprises the back third of the whale's body is the largest muscle in the animal kingdom, and it's the driving force behind explosive maneuvers such as breaches and peduncle throws like this one.

Head Lunge

Whale watching in Maui

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

A head lunge is somewhat like a big belly flop, where a whale will rise about a third of the way out of the water and then splash back down to the surface. This behavior is most commonly seen in large competition pods, where groups of males who are competing for a female will lunge and splash at each other. Here, a large whales prepares for a lunge off the southern coastline of Lana'i.

Logging

Photo Credit: Trilogy Excursions

Logging is a term which refers to when a whale is floating just beneath the surface. With only their blowholes and peduncle fin breaking the surface of the water, it's almost as if they're sunbathing for a moment or taking a relaxing nap. You'll often see logging when there is a large mother who nursing a newborn calf, or after an extended series of breaches when the whale simply needs to rest.

Sounding Dive

Photo Credit: Trilogy Excursions

Adult humpbacks can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, and you know that a whale is taking an extended dive when you see the tail flukes go vertical. The good news about a sounding dive is that it makes for a nice photo opportunity (and the chance to see the pattern on the bottom of the flukes), but it also usually means the whale is waving goodbye for a while.

Swimming Inverted

Derek Klein watermark border
Derek Klein watermark border

Photo Credit: T Derek Klein

Every year there are a couple of whale watching tours where we are treated to a special show. Sometimes whales will approach the boat when we are completely stopped in the water, and they will swim around the boat in circles and even swim upside down. This is what's known as being "mugged" by a whale, because there is nothing we can do to move the boat until the whale decides to leave. Here you can see the white underbelly of a whale which is swimming completely inverted.

Breach

Surprise!! A rare video capture on our way back from Lana'i. Vid cred: Nancy from Texas, who was on the right boat at the right time. ***This video was taken following Dolphin SMART's criteria for responsible wildlife viewing. For more info, check out: http://bit.ly/2hh7mPI *** . . Follow Us: YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/trilogyexcu...

Without a doubt the full breach is everyone's favorite move, and there are few words to describe the sense of awe of watching a 40-ton animal jump. With little to no warning, these powerful animals will propel themselves out of the water with only 2-3 flaps of their flukes. For an adult humpback, this can mean lifting 90,000-100,000 pounds completely out of the water. While we don't know the exact reasons that humpbacks choose to breach, theories range from sloughing off barnacles and working out their tail muscles to trying to look around. The most commonly agreed upon theory, however, is that humpback whales perform dramatic breaches simply because they can.

Of course, the only thing better than a full breach in front of the the boat is the rarely seen, rarely photographed...

Double Breach!

Double Breach on a whale watch in Maui

Photo Credit: Trilogy Excursions

Do you have photos of a good whale move in Maui? Send us photos on our Facebook page, or come and join us for a whale watching tour during the exciting whale season in Maui. Have any questions about whales in Maui? Leave us a question in the comments below and we'll be more than happy to reply!

Humpbacks Are Back, Alright!

Humpbacks Are Back, Alright!

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.

Ten Facts About Whale Watching In Maui

It's that time of year again! Large winter swells have begun to hit the north shore, Lahaina is getting those cold 65 degree nights (brrr!), and the waters off Maui have begun to teem with the splashes of acrobatic whales. Whale season in Maui has officially begun, and our Maui whale watching tours are already reporting a healthy amount of action. To get you prepped for this upcoming whale season, here are ten facts about humpback whales in Maui that will offer some insight into Hawaii's favorite mammals.

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

1. What kind of whales are in Maui?

On 99.9% of Maui whale watching tours you're going to be watching humpback whales. Although rare species such as false killer whales and pilot whales occasionally will be seen closer to shore,  it’s the aerial, acrobatic humpbacks which make for enthralling Maui whale watching experiences that the island has become so famous for.

Maui whale watching tours

Photo Credit: Divemaster Matthew Wheeler

2. Where do these whales come from?

Technically these whales are from Maui since this is where they were born! In practical terms, however, the humpback whales have migrated here from the nutrient-filled waters of Alaska. During the summer months the humpbacks will gorge themselves on schools of krill and small fish, and once the water in Alaska becomes too cold for their liking, they begin the long journey south. For expectant mothers, the migration is more about survival than comfort; since newborn calves haven't had the chance to accumulate large amounts of fat stores, they would most likely freeze within days of being born in the cold waters of Alaska. Although humpbacks from Alaska will also migrate to Mexico and the islands of the western Pacific, the majority of North Pacific humpback whales choose to spend their winters in Maui.

Humpback Whale migration pattern
Humpback Whale migration pattern

Image courtesy of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

3. So how big are they?

Humpback whales are the world’s 5th largest whales and can grow to between 40-50 ft. Females are often a bit larger than males due to reverse sexual dimorphism, which is a fancy way of saying that they grow bigger than the males so that they can give birth to a 12 ft., 2000-lb. baby! When it comes to their weight, adult humpbacks weigh about one ton per foot, which means that a 20 ft. humpback would weigh 20 tons, and a full-grown adult can weigh upwards of 50 tons!

Maui whale watching tours

Photo Credit: Divemaster Matthew Wheeler

4. So what do the whales eat while in Maui?

Actually, humpback whales will go the entire time they spend in Maui—up tofour months—without eating anything at all. Consequently the adult whales will lose up to 1/3 of their body weight during their winter vacation. The reason why adult whales don’t eat while they’re in Hawaii is simply because there isn’t anything for them to eat, even if they wanted to. Unlike toothed species such as sperm whales, humpbacks are equipped instead with baleen,  a hard substance made out of keratin that also comprises human fingernails.

In a process known as “filter-feeding” the whales will expand their ventral pleats to ingest the same volume of water as a hollowed out African elephant, and they then use the plates of baleen to strain out any krill, plankton, or small fish which may have been caught up in the gulp. The water passes through the baleen, and whatever food is left behind is consequently swallowed. Because Maui’s waters are so warm, however, they are devoid of the whale’s primary food source, so attempting to feed while in Maui would be the equivalent of taking a huge gulp of water and then spitting it all out.

krill9
krill9

5. But the calves must be eating somehow in order to grow?

Even though adult humpbacks don’t eat for the entire time they’re in Maui, the calves are nursing mom’s milk. Unlike 2% milk which we might buy in the grocery store, however, whale’s milk is close to a 40% milkfat, thereby making it more of a yogurt or cottage cheese. The calves will consume up to 100 gallons of this milk on a daily basis, and due to the copious amount of feeding they can actually gain anywhere from 7 to 10 pounds every hour!

Maui whale watching tours

6. So why do whales come to Maui?

Although humpback whales can be spotted throughout the entire Hawaiian Island chain, of all the humpbacks which migrate to Maui, the majority are found in the shallow waters between Maui, Moloka‘i and Lana‘i. There was a time only 18,000 years ago when the four islands of Maui, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, and Kaho‘olawe all comprised a large island known as Maui Nui (which was slightly larger than the current size of the Big Island).

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

At the end of the last ice age, however, scientists estimate that sea levels in this part of the Pacific rose an average of 300 ft., thereby spilling into the valleys of Maui Nui and inundating the low-lying areas. The end-result of this occurrence was that Maui Nui was splintered into the four islands which comprise Maui County today. The reason this is important for the whales, however, is that whereas areas such as the northern shores of Maui and Moloka‘i have water which is thousands of feet deep, the waters in the islands of Maui County average only 300 ft. Consequently, this area forms a safe, protected body of water that is free of large, toothy predators (such as Orca), and is the perfect “kiddie pool” for nurturing newborn calves.

Maui whale watching tours

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

7. How long does it take the whales to travel between Maui and Alaska?

Humpbacks definitely have it harder than humans when it comes to traveling between Hawaii and Alaska. Whereas us humans can make the journey from Maui to Anchorage on a 5-hour flight, it can take the humpbacks in the range of 6-8 weeks to successfully navigate their way from the feeding grounds to the breeding grounds. Seeing as there isn’t anywhere to stop along the way to take a rest, it’s believed that the humpbacks make a continuous, non-stop journey at an average speed of 3-5 mph.

Maui whale watching tours

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

8. So how do whales navigate during the journey?

As anyone who has ever gone scuba diving can attest to, when there are no landmasses to use as reference points it can be pretty easy to get lost. Amazingly, these fascinating humpbacks successfully navigate to the most remote islands on Earth amidst a sea of blue which looks the same in every direction.

But how?

Intriguingly enough, autopsies have shown that humpback whales have trace amounts of a naturally-occurring substance called magnetite that exists in the forefront of their brains. As the name implies, magnetite has magnetic properties to it, and it’s believed that the whales use this magnetite as a means of tapping into the magnetic pull of the Earth to determine which way they need to travel.

Photo Credit: Island Dream Productions

9. OK, but now the big question: Why do whales breach?

The honest truth is that no one knows for sure. There are a lot theories floating around out there—such as that they are using the force of the impact to slough barnacles off of their skin, or that they are working out their tail muscles for the long journey back home—but the most accepted answer that everyone can agree on is simply because they can.

The reason why humpbacks are so aerial in the first place is that despite being only the 5th largest whale, they possess the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom known as the peduncle. Occupying the latter third ofa humpback’s body, the peduncle muscle is so strong that even a fully-grown adult is able to propel themselves entirely out of the water with only two or three flaps of their tail flukes.

10. Ok. I’m sold. So when is the best time to go on a whale watch in Maui?

Although the first whale sightings will usually occur sometime in October, whale season officially runs from December 15-May 15.  Since activity tapers towards the end of the season, however, most Maui whale watches stop running sometime towards the end of April. While sightings are possible all the way until the first week of June, the peak of the season with the most activity is from January 15-March 31.

Want to learn more about our Maui whale watching tours? Check out the various tours on our website, or follow us on Facebook for footage throughout the season!