Whale Watching Maui: The Guide to Seeing Humpback Whales
Even as a Maui local who has been on many humpback whale watching tours, I get giddy when I see a spout of water from a blowhole. It never gets old. A 40-ton mammal enjoying a day in Maui waters. I can relate to that (kinda).
There is so much to know about this majestic and threatened species that come to mate and birth in Hawaiian waters from December to April. Like their real name is “big-winged New Englander,” said in Latin as Megaptera Novaeangliae. They also don’t have a hump. We all have secrets.
Get the most out of your whale watching tour with our tips on choosing the right whale watching boat for your trip to Maui. Plus, after reading this whale watching guide for Maui, you will be able to wow (or annoy) your fellow whale enthusiasts with your knowledge.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Full disclosure: I’m not affiliated with a whale watching company. This Ultimate Humpback Whale Watching Guide for Maui does not end with me trying to sell you on a whale-watching tour.
Humpback whales are noble creatures. Everyone should know about them and hopefully see them in their natural habitat thriving and playing.
Maui Whale Season
The official start of the Maui whale season is 15-December. But the gates do not open on the 15th, sightings start to occur in October and November.
The official Hawaii whale season runs from 15-December to 15-April. February is the peak season. By May, most whales have started their journey north.
Hawaii is the only state in the union where humpback whales mate, birth, and nurse their calves.
Year-after-year, humpback whales return to Hawaiian waters. Hawaiian waters are believed to have the densest population of mating humpback whales in the world.
Humpback whales are one of the most popular whales due to their acrobatic leaps out of the water, distinct and large tail fins (flukes), and complex, melodic songs.
Their songs are interstellar. 14 trillion miles away a gold record contains humpback whale songs on Voyager. They are Earth’s ambassadors.
Witnessing these majestic animals in their natural environment is a sight to behold.
Based on a comprehensive research survey in the Pacific, biologists estimate 8,000 to 10,000 humpback whales visit Hawaii annually. Hawaiian waters are believed to be favored by humpback whales due to their warmth, depth, visibility, and lack of natural predators (orca whales attacking their calves).
The whales seem to enjoy the Au’au Channel, the channel between Lanai, Molokai, and Maui. The 9.5-mile channel is the shallowest and most protected one in Hawaii.
Due to the sheer population and small geographic area, it is no surprise whale watching tours guarantee sightings on a 1.5-hour tour.
Whale Watching in Maui: What to See and Hear
You don’t have to visit Maui during the peak season of February to see all the whale action. You can see all their favorite moves throughout the winter whale season.
Humpback whales are popular due to their animated behavior, above and below the water. These intelligent mammals have a lot to say and a lot at stake during the mating season.
You can witness these majestic moves from the shoreline or one of Maui’s fantastic whale watching tours.
Scan the horizon for the three Bs when whale watching.
🍍 Body Parts
Yell “there she blows” and point in the direction of the whales. You will be the hero of the day.
Stay in West Maui when you visit during the winter. From any West Maui beach or oceanfront lanai (porch), you will see whale spouts on the horizon. We prefer to walk the beach at sunset to look for spouts. On a rare occasion, we will spot a breach from shore.
From shore, my son Henry and wife Erica witnessed a mother and calf playfully breaching over and over and over again. I wasn’t with them and I’m not at all jealous.
Understand what these surface behaviors are communicating by reading below. You will appreciate them more when you see them in person.
Boats must stay 100 yards away from a humpback whale. Mugging occurs when a whale approaches a boat to take a closer look.
Vertically floating in the water, a whale will pop its eyes out of the water to see what is happening on the surface level. The whale’s rostrum or head is completely out of the water, this is called a spy hop.
This is what you are waiting for, a breach. Humpback whales are famous for their playful, acrobatic feats. They gain speed quickly and launch their 35-ton+ selves out of the water and land with a terrific splash.
The peduncle muscle, located between the dorsal fin and the flukes, provides a strong force to push the whale upwards and onwards. A mid-air twist is thrown in for good effect. Researchers believe the maneuver is to blast off parasites or announce their presence, but no one really knows.
About every 15 to 20-minutes adult humpback whales swim to the surface to breathe. They can go 45-minutes on a deep dive. A blow results in a fine mist of hot, condensed water from their lungs that can go as high as 20-feet. This is the easiest way to spout whales (pun intended).
A pectoral slap is when a female whale lifts one or both large fins out of the water and then slaps the water, repeatedly. Scientists believe this is to attract males in the area. At up to 16-feet long (fact #4), the pec makes quite a splash.
If the pec slap isn’t enough for you, try a tail slap or tail throw. The fluke (tail) is raised out the water and thrashed down onto the surface. The slap can create a gunshot-like-sound that carries onto the shore. It is often done repeatedly either to show aggression or play. Juveniles like to practice this trick.
A Fluke Dive
The party is over. When the tail is evenly and fully out of the water, their bodies are in an upside-down upward arch under the water. This signals the whales are going on a deep dive.
When visiting West Maui, stick your head underwater to listen for the singing whales. No joke, a whale song can be heard 20-miles away. Get away from the crashing surf and take a listen.
Only male humpback whales sing complex songs. Both genders make social sounds that may be used in communication or navigation.
It has long been believed males sing to court females as singing is strong in Maui waters during mating season. Others believe singing helps ward off other males or to aid in navigation. Males sing the same songs.
Like the billboard top 40, whales sing the current season’s song. A new song will spread across the Pacific between stocks. Spread, perhaps, by roaming males or in the feeding areas.
“Brand-new song types would appear in a population and then revolutionize the song in that population within a season, say 2-3 months,” Ellen Garland, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says. “They’re learning this new display, throwing the old one right out the window, and doing it in very rapid time.”
There is no definitive proof for why they sing but all can agree the melodious, complex songs are hauntingly beautiful to listen to.
Listen to whale songs here.
14 trillion miles away a gold record contains humpback whale songs on Voyager. When Voyager I and II launched in 1977, whale conservation was at its peak. Making for an ideal way to show the significance of the whale species on mother Earth to others in deep space. The whale song was taped in Bermuda, not Maui (unfortunately).
I smell a multi-platinum hit. The album, Songs of the Humpback Whales, became the bestselling environmental album in history when published in 1970. An unexpected smash hit that took the world by storm. 5 tracks long, the album is whale songs. Clearly, they need to record again since the songs change every year.
Humpback whale songs can last 20-minutes. They are structured similarly to classical music in their repeated phrases and units. A whale will pick up a song where they left off. Songs have a start and a finish.
Whale watching tours will provide headphones or broadcast over the ship’s speakers so you can listen to the whales on your tour in real-time.
Maui Shoreline Whale Viewing: Free Whale Watching
You don’t have to board an ocean-going vessel to see a whale in Maui. We enjoy them from the cliffs and beaches across the Valley Isle.
Whales can be spotted in Maui on the north, south, and west shores. West Maui beaches provide the most prolific opportunities to see humpback whales from the shore.
Grab a lounge chair at happy hour to sit on the beach or lanai to look for whales.
Free Whale Watching with a Professional
Want tips or answers to your questions about whales? The Pacific Whale Foundation has a marine naturalist manning a table at the McGregor Point Lookout on Route 30, Honoapi’ilani Highway. The station is manned from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm daily during the whale season.
Stop by to borrow their binoculars high up on a cliff overlooking primo whale watching area.
You are also welcomed to go to the Visitor Center of the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Located on the beachfront in Kihei (South Maui), the Visitor Center is an ideal location to watch humpback whales breach and learn about the marine environment.
Top Locations for Whale Watching from the Maui Shore
Here are the best beaches and viewpoints to spot humpbacks frolicking in the water per the Pacific Whale Foundation.
In order from South Maui to West Maui, here are the best Maui whale watching locations from the shore:
- Pu’u Ola’i Beach: located off Wailea Alanui Drive, near Makena Beach.
- Wailea Oceanside Path: Take a stroll on the Wailea Beach Resort Boardwalk from the Fairmount Kea Lani Hotel to Ulua Beach. Perfect for sunset viewing.
- Visitor Center for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary: Newly renovated, this is a great place to see whales breach while learning about the marine environment in their exhibits. 726 South Kihei Road, Kihei.
- McGregor Point Lookout: On the Honoapiilani Highway between Ma’alea and Lahaina is a scenic outlook with plenty of parking. This is the top place for consistent whale viewing as it is high up on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
- Lahaina Pali Trailhead. The trailhead is on the Honoapiilani Highway on the Lahaina side of the tunnel at 20 Honoapiilani Highway, between Coral Gardens and Papalua Beach Park.
- Olowalu: Five miles south of Lahaina on the Honoapiilani Highway in the village of Olowaul is a viewing area up the hill. Turn into the Olowalu General Store and Leoda’s Kitchen, then follow the dirt road behind the store up the hill for great vistas.
- Ka’anapali Beach Walking Path: Walk the beachside path from Black Rock to the Hyatt on the southside of Ka’anapali to see whales frolicking in the waters.
Whale Tours Maui
Whale watching in Hawaii is a $20 million dollar a year industry. With such an abundance of whales in a small channel off of Maui, people come from all over the world for the warm winter weather and to see the flying humpback whales.
Whale watching operators are confident they can find whales for you.
“We are proud of our 97% sighting success rate,” totes the Pacific Whale Foundation.
Every operator attempts a unique angle to get you on their seafaring vessel. Whale watching tours vary in price, passengers on board, type of boat, time of day, bonus snorkeling, and the options go on.
With so many operators, I can’t count them all, how do you know what tour to pick?
Pick the whale watching tour that is best for you and your family. Let me break down the choices for you and give my insight per my experience as I have tried all types of vessels for whale watching.
First off, the time of day does not matter.
Whales are not more active in the morning or dusk. Since they are conscious breathers, they don’t have a set sleeping schedule. Therefore, any time of day is as good as any other to see whales.
The type of boat is the biggest decision for choosing a whale watching tour.
The boat type will also set the price range. The second decision is the extras that are included on the tour.
But first, the types of boats to whale watch on in Maui.
Pro Tip: I recommend you go whale watching early in your trip. If you by chance you don’t see whales or miss out on an acrobatic performance like breaching, you can go again before you leave Maui. The whale operators guarantee a sighting by allowing you to rebook a tour at no additional cost, so go early so you can rebook before your flight home.
Whale Watching Boats and Helicopters
Speed and agility are the names of the game to see whales. When another whale watching captain spots whales, they tell their buddies to come to take a look. A raft can get there faster than a 149 passenger ship.
Therefore, to increase your chances of seeing whales and seeing more whales, the types of Maui whale tours by speed are the following.
- Rafts and Powerboats
- Catamaran ships
- Outrigger canoes
The type of vessel also comes with an inherent whale watching experience.
A raft holds 12 to 18 passengers plus a 2-person crew. The marine naturalist and captain are a few feet away to answer all your questions.
While Hawaii law forbids a vessel from approaching within 100-yards of a whale, one can’t stop a whale from coming to you. The smaller vessel provides an opportunity for a curious whale to get close to you. To give a mugging. A raft, kayak, or canoe are notorious for getting close encounters and underwater shots.
Professional photographers choose rafts when they go out on the hunt for whale photos.
A raft or outrigger canoe ride is an adventure in itself. The raft, for example, is a fast, bumpy, and, in rough seas, a wet ride. Shaded seating is available but a raft doesn’t provide the freedom of movement and smooth sailing of a larger whale-watching ship.
Larger whale watching vessels that hold 50 to 149 passengers are a leisurely affair. Similar to a cruise ship, refreshments are available in the galley, toilets are on board, and there is ample seating inside and outside. The larger sailboats offer similar amenities.
There may be two marine naturalists on board to answer questions and providing non-stop commentary via a microphone.
I’d be remiss to not mention whale watching by helicopter. I have not tried it but seeing the whales from the air would be a once in a lifetime experience. Helicopter tours of West Maui and Molokai are common as they fly near waterfalls, the tallest sea cliffs in the world, and other sights. During whale season, they are on the lookout for whales. As whales, especially mothers and calves, are near the surface it makes viewing from above possible.
With the abundance of humpback whales in the Maui waters, rafts to sailboats guarantee sightings. Therefore, choosing the boat for your whale watching trip may more depend on your sea-legs, who is coming with you, and the amenities you want onboard.
My Personal Favorite Whale Watching Tour
After sampling all types of boats in Maui during whale season, my favorite whale watching experience is aboard a raft.
I enjoyed being on a raft as I was closer to the water and felt closer to the whales. While a whale hasn’t approached me while on a raft, a raft has proved more intimate experiences.
Also, the speed of the raft enabled us to see different groups of whales. We could watch and mother and calf play for 30-minutes and then zip over to a group of males chasing a female. With the marine naturalist within arms reach, they couldn’t escape my questions.
Whale Watching Features
Tour operators offer a host of different features to make their tour unique or to market to a certain demographic. Once again, find the right tour that makes you comfortable.
All whale tours offer hydrophones, a marine naturalist or two, and whale sightings. The extra features are what make the experience more than just whale watching.
Extra features can include snorkeling, sunrise or sunset cruise, food, and photographs of the whales you saw.
There are also specialty cruises like a “Welcome Home to the Whales” cruise featuring a traditional Hawaiian blessing at sea and hula performance. During Maui Whale Festival there are concert cruises. The Pacific Whale Foundation offers a host of specialty whale watching cruises.
For your vacation to Maui during whale season, you can choose a whale tour that gives you a full Maui fun-on-the-water experience.
Choose a sailboat cruise where you can sail to Molokini crater for snorkeling. Tours include breakfast and lunch aboard the sailboat. Along the way, watch whales dance across the water. While at Molokini, see Hawaiian green sea turtles and fish who are only seen in Maui. On the way back, enjoy the sunset with whales surrounding your sailboat. Sounds pretty good, eh?
One of my favorite whale watching experiences was on a sunrise whale tour. We watched the sunrise over Haleakala while listening to a chorus of whales singing. The marine naturalist put the hydrophone in the water and played the live performance over the ship’s speakers. It was magical. No joke.
Times To Go
Since whales have no set schedule, anytime is good to go on a whale tour. Operators have tours departing throughout the day.
Tour operators will provide sunrise, morning, afternoon, and sunset cruises. Each with a different feature or length to set them apart.
Length of Trip
The standard Maui whale watching cruise is 2-hours. Some whale tours may offer a 1.5-hour tour.
Delux cruises are available for 3-hours or longer. These can include breakfast or lunch depending on the boat and time out on the sea. Also, the longer whale watching cruises may include added features like snorkeling or searching for dolphins.
I have found the standard 2-hour cruise to be perfect. I can’t handle much more time on a small boat. 2-hours is a lot of time to find multiple groups of whales as you transect the channel.
Luck always plays a hand in what the whales are doing that day and time. If you don’t want to miss the chance to see whales during your visit to Maui, then spend the extra few dollars for an extended tour.
Maui Whale Tour Prices
The Maui whale watching scene is competitive. Tour operators are close on price. Choosing the type of boat and special features will dictate the price you pay.
Prices below are 2020 advertised prices. I provide a range based on the standard whale watching tour offered. Taxes and fees apply to the listed prices. Some also charge a fuel surcharge.
I recommend booking directly with the tour operator as they typically provide the best price or offer an online booking discount. I have also had luck finding cheaper prices, like $5 off, on Hawaii Activities.
🍍 Helicopter: $280 to $340 per person for a helicopter tour
🍍 Private charter sailboat: $600 for up to 6 people to $1,300 for up to 22 people
🍍 Raft: $49 to $55
🍍 Powerboat: $51
🍍 Catamaran Ship: $25 to $45
🍍 Catamaran Sailboat: $50 to $75
The standard fare includes the following on your tour. They may advertise as special features, but they aren’t special.
🍍 Guaranteed whale sightings
🍍 Complimentary reef-safe sunscreen
🍍 Onboard Marine Naturalist
🍍 Hydrophone to listen to whale songs
🍍 Beverages and snacks (free or available onboard)
Things to Bring When Whale Watching
After many a whale watching tour, here is my list of things to bring. You don’t need much, just things to keep you comfortable and to remember your trip.
Must bring items for your whale watching tour:
🍍 Sweatshirt or light jacket
🍍 Reef-safe sunscreen (also available onboard)
🍍 Low-heeled shoes for larger boats
Nice to have items for your whale watching voyage:
🍍 Sun hat
Eco-Friendly Whale Tours
There are no government or non-profit recognition programs for whale watching companies in Maui or the state of Hawaii. Alaska and the U.S. Atlantic region have developed the WhaleSENSE program to recognize environmentally responsible companies.
Companies participating in the WhaleSENSE program agree to:
🍍 Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines.
🍍 Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have “SENSE” while watching whales.
🍍 Notify and report whales in distress.
🍍 Set an example for other boaters.
🍍 Encourage ocean stewardship.
I hope the whale watching boat you are on follows these best practices.
Help Minimize Whale Watching Harassment
NOAA Fisheries and non-profit whale protection groups welcome whale watching. One develops an appreciation and desire to protect the species after seeing them with your own eyes. Also, tour operators are part of the network of people who ensure whale counts are accurate and help find hurt or entangled whales.
When you are on a whale watching tour in Maui, you should expect the captain to follow the following responsible viewing guidelines.
🍍 Not approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale.
🍍 Not place your vessel in the path of oncoming humpback whales, causing them to surface within 100 yards of your vessel.
🍍 Not disrupt the normal behavior or prior activity of a humpback whale.
🍍 Operate your vessel at a slow, safe speed when near humpbacks.
Hawaii also prohibits operating an aircraft within 333 yards of a humpback whale.
See the full list of guidelines for whale protection and human safety here.
Why Do Humpback Whales Visit Hawaii?
As my Michigan grandparents would do every winter, they head south. Instead of Florida, the North Pacific humpback whale population heads to Hawaii. I don’t blame them.
After a summer of feeding off the coast of the Aleutian Islands in Alaskan waters, the whales travel 3,500 miles south to Hawaii. According to NOAA, humpback whales migrate the farthest of any mammal on Earth. The migration between the feeding and breeding grounds occurs annually.
11,706 miles is the longest recorded migration for a humpback whale. The trip started in American Samoa and ended on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Humpback whales visit Hawaii for three reasons:
🍍 to breed
🍍 to birth, and
🍍 to nurse their calves in safety
Humpback whales have an 11 to 12-month gestational period. Therefore, last season’s honeymoon becomes this season’s honeymoon baby.
Clocking in at three to seven miles per hour, their journey from Alaska to Hawaii takes four to six weeks with very few stops. The fastest recorded is 36 days.
Whale arrivals are staggered to Hawaii. Juveniles are the first to arrive in late October and November. Pregnant females are the last to arrive. Whales travel alone or in groups of two to three called pods. Whales come and go throughout the whale watching season.
Per the research, adult males stay the longest and females without calves the shortest. Since humpbacks don’t eat while in Maui waters, their stay is partly dependent on their blubber reserves.
A well-fed, fat male can stay up to 8 weeks in Maui waters. Typically, humpback whales stay for 4 to 6 weeks.
Hawaii Whales Come from Good Stock
There are four populations of the North Pacific humpback whale.
All four groups feed in northern waters over the continental shelf of the Pacific ocean, spanning the area between the Bering Sea and northern California. The waters between 40 to 75 degrees latitude are rich in krill and small schools of fish like herring and capelin.
The whales may not feed during their winter migration or while in Hawaii.
Migration data and image above are from SPLASH Research, HIHWNMS.
These four North Pacific stocks (stocks is the scientific name for these populations) summer in different locations. They all head toward the equator.
- The Mexican Stock: This group of humpback whales feed across California to the Aleutian Islands and goes to the coast of Mexico and the Revillagigedo Islands for the winter.
- The Central American Stock: Breeds along the Pacific of Central America and feeds from California to British Columbia.
- The Hawaii Stock: Breeds in the Hawaiian Islands and feeds in a large area across the North Pacific, namely Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia.
- The Western North Pacific Stock: These humpback whales breed around Okinawa, Japan to the Philipines and feed primarily from the West Bering Sea to the Aleutian Islands.
There is evidence of a fifth breeding area in the western North Pacific.
Estimating population size is challenging for humpbacks because of their broad habitat areas and long migrations. Government research and non-profits continue to work on counting the whale populations in their major habitats.
An international cooperative research project with the witty name Structures of Population, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales or SPLASH conducted a comprehensive whale count from 2004 to 2006. The project used photo-identification and biopsy tissue sampling to exam the North Pacific humpback whale migration. What did they uncover?
8,000 individual whales were identified. SPLASH data revealed the overall population of humpbacks in the North Pacific to be approximately 18,000 to 20,000 whales as of 2006. They forecast the population to be growing at 5 to 6% per year.
The four stocks have about an equal population. But other research points to a majority of humpback whales are born in Hawaii each year. Intermixing between the whale stocks is well documented resulting in a diverse gene pool for the recovering whale population.
With this evidence in whales flocking to Hawaii, marine biologists estimate the largest migratory stock of humpback whales in the world is in Hawaii.
Humpback whales are in all the world’s oceans, not just the Northern Pacific. Seven stocks of humpback whales swim in the Southern Hemisphere and feed in the nutrient-rich waters off of Antarctica.
Fun Fact: The only humpback whale stock that does not migrate lives in the Arabian Sea. The sea supports them year-round for feeding, mating, and birthing. This is the smallest stock with an estimated 80 humpback whales.
There is so much more to these amazing mammals. Scientists don’t pretend to know everything about humpback whales. Much of their life is a mystery as they spend 90% underwater but the research continues. Hence, you will find a large range in some of the facts on humpbacks.
Humpback Whale Biology
I like my whale facts fast and short. Here are 21 humpback whale facts that will leave you speechless.
A marine naturalist is on the good tour boats so check their answers and facts to the following whale biology.
21 Humpback Whale Facts
- Humpback whales do not have a humped back. Their back forms a large hump when they arch their backs prior to a deep dive.
- Megaptera novaeangliae is the scientific name for humpback whales. It translates to “Big-Winged New Englander” because Europeans who named them were familiar with the stock that swam off New England and humpbacks have large fins.
- Humpbacks are the reigning champs for having the largest appendage in the world. Their flippers can grow to 16 feet long.
- Humpbacks are the 5th largest whale species. Blue whales are the reigning champs.
- Female humpbacks grow to 60 feet long and weigh 25 to 40 tons. That is 6 adult elephants.
- Female humpback whales are larger than males (common in whale species). Male humpbacks are 45 to 50 feet in length.
- Tails or flukes are easy to spot because they can grow to be 18 feet wide.
- Humpbacks’ heads are covered in tubercles, knobs that contain one stiff hair. Hairs may be motion detectors or provide a sense of touch but not proven.
- 20 minutes is the average dive time. 45-minute dive has been recorded.
- Humpback whales probably live about 80 to 90-years. It is believed the average lifespan is 50-years-old.
- Males sing complex mating songs that last up to 20 minutes but can go hours and be heard 20-miles away.
- Whale fingerprint: the dorsal fin and fluke (tail). Dorsal fin and fluke shape and color pattern is unique to each whale, making photo-identification possible in the SPLASH study. Other non-profits do the same for their local populations.
- 3,000 pounds of food per day. The North Pacific humpback whales feed on small crustaceans, krill, plankton, and small fish.
- 4 to 10 years old when a whale hits sexual maturity.
- Humpbacks do not mate for life, they are polygamous mammals.
- The gestation period is 11 to 12 months.
- Females birth a single calf, on average every 2 to 3 years. Scientists have witnessed annual calving in some females.
- Birthing a calf is like a human birthing a toddler. Calves average 2,000 pounds when born and grow at 100 pounds per day and an inch per day.
- Humpback whales spend 90% of their lives underwater.
- Humpback whales are baleen whales. 270 to 400 fringed, overlapping plates made of keratin, similar to human hair and nails, hang from both sides of their upper jaw. Baleen plates are 30-inches long and black. The baleens filter the water.
- Humpbacks use “bubble net feeding” off Alaska. They create a net of bubbles to condense fish and push them to the surface. Then, they lunge upward with their mouth open.
Whale Fact References
In case the onboard marine naturalist doubts your encyclopedic knowledge, here is the cited research.
- NOAA Hawaii Humpback Whales
- NOAA Fisheries Humpback Whales
- American Cetacean Society
- Endangered Species Organization Humpback Whales
Humpback Whale Appearance
Humpback whales are the size of a school bus, plus throw on a 15-foot tail and fins on the side.
Humpback whales are primarily black. Scientists can identify individuals as each has a unique pattern of white on their flukes (tails), bellies, and pectoral fins. Similar to a fingerprint. The Northern Hemisphere humpback whale has fewer white markings compared to their Southern Hemisphere counterparts.
The heads of the humpback whales are wide and rounded when seen from above, but more slender in profile.
Bumby knobs, called tubercles, cover the tops of their heads and lower jaw. These tubercles contain a hair follicle that may provide a sense of touch.
Humpback whales have 20-35 underbelly (ventral) grooves that extend past their naval.
A humpback whale’s eyes are located just behind the mouth and are about the size of an orange.
Humpback whales have large front flippers (pectoral fins) that grow up to 15 to 16 feet in length. The fins can range from all-white to all-black, with individual patterns on each whale. The color patterns on a humpback whale’s dorsal fins and flukes are like a fingerprint. Scientists use the markings for photo-identification when counting and researching individuals.
See below to learn the main biological features that make humpback whales unique.
Whales sleep but not like us. They are conscious breathers. Meaning, they must think about breathing while we humans breathe unconsciously. The problem is all mammals have to sleep, unconscious slumber. So humpback whales do this by shutting off half their brain to let it rest. They do this when they feel tired and safe, they don’t have a set sleeping schedule like night time.
Humpback Whale Mating and Birthing
5.3% of visitors to Hawaii came for their honeymoon in 2018. 100% of humpback whales came to Hawaii for their honeymoon.
Okay, maybe not 100% because humpbacks are not sexually active till they are 5 to 9 years old (fact #14).
Whales migrate 3,500 miles to Hawaii to breed, birth, and nurse their calves. Humpbacks are a polygamous mammal. Genetic testing has shown calves from the same female have different fathers. They do not mate for life.
Females are looking for the right male to mate with once they arrive in Maui waters. But breeding hasn’t been directly observed.
Males compete for the attention of females. Aggressive behavior ensues. Fierce head-to-head battles occur. On a whale watching tour, one could see males chasing, fighting, thrashing, having bubble and spout displays, and vocal eruptions. Another tactic is to surface on top of one another. Bleeding can occur in these battles but a kill has not been observed.
Post-mating, females are not seen in the presence of their male beau for the remainder of their winter stay in Hawaii. Males are seen escorting mothers and their calves but these are males hoping to get under the mothers’ good graces for the next child. Scientists estimate the male escort has a 2% chance of mating when a mother is with a calf in Maui.
The gestation period is 11 to 12-months for a humpback whale. During this time they feed in northern waters only to return during the winter for birthing.
Calves are born at 2,000 pounds and 13 to 16-feet long. As mammals, they nurse from their mother’s 40% to 50% fat-rich milk. The milk has a yogurt or cottage cheese texture. The high-fat content enables them to gain 100 pounds per day and grow an inch per day.
Calves are born with a thin layer of blubber. Hawaii’s warm waters are also ideal for the calves to thicken their fat layer so they can survive the frigid waters off Alaska.
A mother whale will lose one-third of her weight during her stay in Maui. The trip south, birthing, nursing, and all while not eating in Maui leads to the loss in weight. A mother will birth a calf upon arrival in Maui and stay for four to seven weeks. Compared to a female who comes to Maui to mate will stay for two weeks.
Seeing a humpback whale mother with her calf is surreal. They are affectionate mothers. Mothers play, protect, and at times touch fins with their calf. As spring approaches in Hawaii, one can witness the growing calves playing at the water’s surface. Mothers can be seen breaching alongside.
Hawaiian waters are a training ground for the growing calves. The winter is time for the calves to learn the motor and basic survival skills required to swim the daunting 3,500 miles north to Alaskan waters with their mother. You may see a calf practicing breaching, pec slaps, and other behaviors while in Maui during whale season.
The calf will nurse for 6 to 12-months before the mother starts to wean the calf off nursing.
Males are not father figures in the human sense to their calves. They are absent fathers in the early life of their calves.
Calves are not believed to maintain long-term relationships with their mothers but they are found to feed and breed in the same habitats over their lives.
Scientist speculates Hawaii has a disproportionate number of whales coming to mate each year from the three stocks due to calves returning to familiar water.
Whatever it is about Maui, the humpback whale population is rebounding well after near extinction in the 20th century.
Humpback Whale Conservation
The humpback whale population was 95% depleted due to commercial whaling. The 1985 moratorium on commercial whaling was the inflection point in their population. Many whale populations (stocks) continue to be on the endangered species lists.
Threats to humpback whales continue due to the following:
🍍 Entanglement in fishing gear
🍍 Vessel strikes
🍍 Underwater noise
🍍 Habitat impacts
🍍 Vessel-based harassment
The latter item is why Hawaii has a law that whale-watching boats must approach a minimum safe distance of 100-yards from humpback whales.
Commercial whaling, like what Lahaina’s population was busy doing in the 19th century, decimated the humpback whale population in the 19th and early 20th century. They were the first animal listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970 and then under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Humpbacks are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
From a low-point of 10,000 to 15,000 humpback whales, the population has rebounded to an estimated 80,000 around the world.
There has been a lot of effort to conserve the whales in the Hawaii population and the North Pacific’s four stocks. The overall North Pacific population was believed to be 1,400 weak in 1966. By 1993, the population was estimated at 6,000. Today it is over 21,000 strong and growing.
Thanks to that recovery, the Hawaii stock of North Pacific humpback whales was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2016. Unfortunately, other North Pacific stocks remain on the list.
Federal sanctuaries in Hawaii have been a huge help to rebuild the humpback whale population.
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Created by Congress in 1992, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (remembered by the more complicated acronym: HIHWNMS) is located from the shoreline to 600-feet depth.
The sanctuaries are located in the four island areas of Maui, Penguin Bank (northwest of Molokai), north shore of Kauai, north and south shores of Oahu, and north Kona and Kohala coast of Hawaiʻi Island.
The sanctuary is administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA keeps the Hawaii sanctuaries protected and accessible to whale watching enthusiasts like us. They do such things as helping to de-tangle whales that are caught, conduct whale counts, minimize vessel disturbance, eliminate whale injury caused by fisheries, and monitoring the overall health of the whale population.
The sanctuaries had seen an increase year-over-year in Hawaiian waters until 2015. When the whales didn’t show up on time.
Humpback Whale Population Dropping in Maui Waters
It was late December in 2015, and the whale numbers were way down. Tour operators were calling NOAA to ask where the whales were. The Mexican network was also reporting low counts.
Transect surveys in our very own Au’au Channel between Maui and Lanai by the Keiki Kohola Project showed a healthy increase of 5% to 6% in calves from 2008 to 2013. The researchers started to see random fluctuations in the counts in 2014 and 2015.
“But by the time we got to 2017, we were over 50 percent down from 2014,” said Dr. Rachel Cartwright, emeritus faculty at California State University, Channel Islands, and lead researcher with the Keiki Kohola Project.
In 2018, they saw an additional 35% drop in mother-calf pairs.
Other researchers were also finding the Maui waters to be quieter. Male humpback whales were either fewer in number or not singing as much.
Similar observations were being recorded across the Hawaiian Islands. Counts of whales by the Sanctuary Ocean Count were reporting fewer whale sightings.
Food is the likely culprit. Or lack of food in Alaskan waters.
Our beloved humpback whales may have been hit by a perfect storm of warm waters. Three events have occurred in the past few years.
- El Nino: warm waters from western, tropical Pacific Ocean move east. This triggers a change in climate as waters in Alaska become warmer-than-average.
- Pacific Decadal Oscillation: While El Nino occurs every two to seven years, the oscillation occurs every 20 to 30 years. The Pacific shifts between a cool phase to a warm phase.
- The Blob: This scientific name is when a mass of warm water parked itself off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in 2013. It became 2,000 miles wide. This could be from the oscillation or a new high-pressure weather pattern over the northeast Pacific.
Krill, the main food for humpback whales, are hit hard by warm water. Krill eggs need a small temperature range to hatch. Once they hatch, krill needs current upswells to bring nutrients to the surface.
Alaska has seen fewer whales, skinnier whales, a decrease in salmon and cod fisheries, and seabird die-off. All believed linked to these weather patterns.
Scientists don’t know for sure what is causing the decrease but they continue to count whales, observe behavior, and work together to find a cause.
The good news is, if the decrease is due to a food shortage, then the weather may get cold again causing krill to rebound.
Whales continue to come to Hawaii though in large numbers. As a whale watcher on a tour boat, it is important to let a mother and calf thrive in the wild.
“Maybe we can realize that they’re having a tough time and give them more space,” hopes Cartwright. “As mum and calf pairs get rarer, they’re going to be surrounded by boats more,” Cartwright points out.
Read Humpback Whales are Navigating and Ocean of Change for more details on this story.
This is just another part of the complex and long humpback whale story in Maui.
Hawaiian Whale History
Kohola (humpback whale) is engrained in Hawaiian culture and folklore. Humpback whales are believed to be family ancestors, defied as aumakua who take the form of a whale or another animal. Humpbacks are also a direct representation of the Hawaiian demigod of ocean animals, Kanaloa.
The history of humpback whales visiting Hawaii goes back to the ancient Polynesian Era of 1-600 AD. Petroglyphs (carvings in stone) depict whales in the Maui County islands. Olowalu Town in Maui has a petroglyph of a whale and Lanai has one of a man riding the back of a whale.
1819 was when whaling started in Hawaii. Two ships from New England arrived and unfortunately started the commercial whaling industry in Hawaii. For 40 years, whaling towns like Lahaina, Maui became a prominent source of income for the Hawaiian population. A recorded 100+ ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824. By 1846, 736 whaling ships arrived in Hawaiian ports.
Good for the humpback whale but potentially bad for the world, oil was discovered. The need for whale oil plummeted over a few years, starting in 1859. Just in time, as by the early 20th century the humpback whale population was decimated.
The humpback whale population slowly climbed back over the 20th century. Leading to a boom for Maui tourism as people from around the world flocked to Maui to see the acrobatic kohola in all their glory.
Whales that Visit Hawaii
Humpback whales are not the only whales that call Hawaii their home or a vacation spot. Hawaiian waters support 18 species of whales with teeth (Odontocetes) and seven species of baleen whales (Mysticetes).
Due to the sharp drop-off in depth to 18,000 feet around the Big Island, these whales will come close to shore and can be seen around the Big Island. But while on a whale tour in Maui, you may be lucky enough to spot one of these whales.
Some of the more popular whales that visit Hawaii are the following whales:
Short-Finned Pilot Whale (most common after humpback whales)
🍍 Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
🍍 Pygmy Killer Whale
🍍 False Killer Whale
Seeing these whales during humpback whale season is rare but keep a lookout. You will be focused on the waters already so keep an open mind for the type of whale you encounter.
Final Whale Watching Thoughts
The most important thing to bring on your whale watching trip in Maui is a smile. You are about to witness one of the most majestic animals on the planet in the wild. Just like you, they have come to Maui to soak up the sun, warm water, and meet new friends.
If they are lucky, they may find their love for the season.
The Pacific humpback whale has come back from the brink of extinction. Don’t miss an opportunity to see them in their element.
Whale watching is but one thing to do in Maui. Check our favorite and vetted tour companies and things to do in our recommendations sections.
You are now a whale-watching guru, go find yourself some whales.
I'm the co-founder, with my wife Erica, of The Hawaii Vacation Guide. We live on Maui with our toddler Henry and our sweet but quirky dog Hattie. I have a thing for photographing pineapples and learning to surf.
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