it's humpback whale season

Michelle Liu
February 15, 2024

They’re some of Hawaii’s most popular residents, but they only live here for half the year and not even on land; instead, the humpback whales frolic and play in the warm ocean waters, where many of them were born.

A mother whale swimming with her calf off the coast of Maui.

Each year, from November through April, thousands of these majestic creatures are in Hawaii to mate, give birth, and care for their newborn calves. Once spring arrives, the gentle ocean giants trek back to Alaska, focusing solely on eating krill and filling themselves up for their upcoming migration.

“They come here to breed because it’s safer waters. We don’t have the predators that Alaska has,” explains Patty Miller, education coordinator at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “But we also don’t have the food, so they have to return to Alaska in the summer.”

Protecting humpback whales
The whales’ 6,000-mile round-trip journey can be dangerous. They face the risks of boat strikes and entanglement, which can lead to infections, starvation, and drowning.

“Their pectoral fins, tails, even their mouths, can get wrapped up in fishing nets, ropes, and other debris,” says Miller. “Ropes and nets can restrict their movement, impact feeding, and cut into skin, making them more susceptible to diseases.”

Whale entangled in a net. Photo courtesy Hawiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

Throughout Hawaii’s humpback whale season, the sanctuary tracks down entangled whales. Cutting the rope is a big job since the marine mammals can be 50 feet long and weigh 45 tons.

“We have teams all over the Islands who are trained and ready with a boat and equipment,” says Miller.

Up close and personal
Besides freeing entangled whales, the sanctuary also conducts research by flying drones to get up close and collect information without disturbing the whales. Scientists can evaluate a whale’s health just by looking at their skin. Other technology, like listening devices, offers a glimpse of whales’ lives below the surface.

Diving into the underwater lives of whales.

“Our teams attach tags that record their movements and sounds,” says Miller. “It’s the first time we’re seeing what the whales do and how they interact underwater.”

Inspiring ocean stewards
Education is another major factor in protecting humpback whales. The sanctuary conducts training for whale watching companies to reduce the number of boat strikes. They teach them how to spot tails and whale blows as they exhale, as well as rules and regulations. It’s illegal to approach a whale within 100 yards.

Whale breaching in front of tour boat.

“Go slow and don’t assume a whale can see you or move out of the way. All ocean users need to stay vigilant on the water,” says Miller. “We want to give them the information they need to know to stay away from the whale for their safety as much as the whale’s.”

The sanctuary also has visitor centers on Maui and Kauai, where families can explore ocean and whale displays, learn about the marine environment, and even see a whale breach.

Patience is key
January through March is typically peak humpback whale season. On the last Saturday of each of those months, the community is invited to help monitor whales from the shores of Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island.

The Sanctuary Ocean Count is an educational outreach program where volunteers tally humpback whale sightings and observe their behavior on the surface.

Humpback whale spouting water off the coast of Maui.

“People can get involved and learn how to collect data,” says Miller. “It’s a snapshot of how many whales are out there that day.”

Counts will be held on Feb. 24 and March 30. But you don’t have to wait for those dates to see a humpback whale breach. Mothers and their calves often gather in protected, shallow waters between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. Makapuu and Sandy Beach are popular viewing areas on Oahu. Whether you go to the beach or an outlook area, you’ll need to be patient.

“You just have to wait for that blow to come out or the splash,” says Miller. “It might take time, but it’s worth it. Seeing a huge whale pop out of the water is a real thrill; they’re just magnificent animals.”

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