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Humpback whales of Hawaii

Whale Watching in Hawaii

What are humpback whales?
Kohola (humpback whales) are one of the larger species of baleen whales, with adult males ranging between 40 and 52 feet and weighing up to 45 tons. Despite their size, humpback whales are surprisingly graceful acrobats. Keep your eye on the ocean and you might see one “breach,” propelling up to 40 percent of its body out of the water and landing on its side with a spectacular splash. If you’ve ever heard a whale song, you’ve listened to a male humpback whale. Their haunting melodies can be heard underwater from up to twelve miles away.

Why do whales come to Hawaii?
Just as our idyllic weather beckons to tourists around the world, the warm shallow waters (less than 600 feet) surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands are a favorite destination for humpback whales. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population returns to Hawaii to breed, calve and nurse their young. They race over 3,000 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii in less than two months, then stay for a lengthy vacation, frolicking off our shores and entertaining spectators from December through May.

In Hawaii, the return of the kohola is considered more of a homecoming than a visit. Humpback calves are born in Hawaiian waters, making them “kamaaina” or native born. Some Native Hawaiians also believe the kohola are aumakua (family guardians), and so these gentle giants are treated with great respect.

What’s the best way to see whales?
Although humpbacks can be spotted across all of the Hawaiian Islands, one of the best viewing spots in the world is the shallow Auau Channel between West Maui (Lahaina and Kaanapali), Lanai and Molokai. Whale watching tours may be the best option to view whales up close.  In respect for the kohola and the safety of sightseers, all watercraft must stay a minimum of 100 yards from the whales, but you’ll be surprised how close you feel when a 45-ton behemoth lunges out of the sea. If a boat tour is not for you, their impressive acrobatic displays are often visible from miles away. If you’re on land, keep a pair of binoculars handy because you never know when you’ll see a humpback’s spout (which can be 10-20 feet tall).

Are humpback whales protected?
Once plentiful, decades of whaling depleted the numbers of humpback whales. Today, the Endangered Species Act and other laws protect whales from hunting, harm and disturbances. In 1992, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii through education, outreach, research and resource management activities including entanglement rescue efforts. The sanctuary extends from the shoreline to the 600-foot depth around the main islands. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Hawaii. Mahalo to the Humpback Whale NMS for much of the content in this section. To learn more, click here.

Quit often while we are teaching surf lessons here on the north shore of Oahu we will see the whales just outside the surfbreaks jumping and playing.  If you go under water and listen you can hear them sing to eachother.  Its so beautiful and a sound like nothing you have ever heard!

To explore more on Whales in Hawaii, click on the links below.

> Whale Facts and Behaviors
> Cultural Significance of Whales in Hawaii