North Pacific Humpback Whales 101

One of the most extraordinary experiences of one’s lifetime is witnessing the North Pacific humpback whales in Hawaiian waters. Book a Maui whale watch tour on your next vacation during their annual winter migration. These magnificent mammals are awe-inspiring!

North Pacific Humpback Whale

Enjoy this North Pacific Humpback Whales 101 blog to learn some fun facts and prepare for your next adventure in paradise.


Humpback Whales & Ancient Hawaiian Culture

The migration of whales to and around the Hawaiian Islands is an annual winter event that has been familiar to Native Hawaiians over the centuries. It is estimated that over 50% of the North Pacific humpback whale population comes to Hawaii in the winter!

In the Kumulipo, the 2,000-line Hawaiian creation chant, palaoa (whales), are introduced in the 16th verse in the time of po (darkness). The whales helped to usher in the time of ao (light) when man was made. “Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai” (Born is the whale living in the ocean). The chant teaches that in Hawaiian culture, whales are part of both darkness and light, divine and physical.

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Whales Are Built for Long Journeys

The North Pacific humpback whales are the fifth largest whale species on the planet and they can grow to 60 feet long and weigh between 25 and 40 tons. Like most whales, the females are longer than the males. The whales have huge tails, measuring up to 18 feet wide. These powerful tails propel them along their 2500-mile migration, which takes them from their feeding grounds in northern cold water to their breeding and calving grounds in warmer waters. The fastest known migration is just 36 days—that’s almost 70 miles per day!

When do they sleep, you ask? They do it while they’re on the road! Humpback whales have two blowholes, one for each lung, and their lungs are roughly the size of a midsize car. Unlike humans, whales need to think about breathing. This is why they sleep with one eye open and only rest half of their brains at a time. It’s a pretty handy skill, for sure.

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Whale Songs of Giants

In the early 1950s, scientists began to record humpback whale songs in Hawaii. The songs last somewhere between 7 to 30 minutes, though they will often repeat songs for hours on end. The songs can be heard up to 20 miles away. When you go on a snorkeling trip off the coast of Maui during whale season you can hear them underwater!

Fun fact: Only the male humpbacks sing. They are not born with the ability to sing. Instead, they are taught to sing at a young age. Although the humpback whale song is one of the most widely recognized animal sounds, surprisingly little is known about its purpose. This is not due to lack of effort. Scientists have been studying different aspects of these songs for decades, leading them to develop theories about what might motivate a whale to sing. You would think that whales sing to attract mates. While that is a logical answer, several studies have been inconclusive as playbacks of these songs have often resulted in attracting more male whales.

Another theory is that when male singers join each other, it creates a type of mating display called a “lek.” Leks occur when multiple males display together, allowing females to choose the best from the group. With this in mind, reproductive females might be initially attracted to the lek by the broad signal of several chorusing males. Males benefit from conserving energy that would otherwise be spent searching for those females.

Whales may use the songs for a variety of reasons, but whatever the reason for the songs, we appreciate how important singing is to these fantastic animals.

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Humpback Whale Acrobatics

We’ve all seen film footage of giant humpback whales leaping out of the water and coming back down with a huge splash. Humpback whales use their powerful fluke (tail fin) to launch themselves almost entirely out of the water, and this incredible spectacle is called breaching. While many other whale species breach, humpback whales seem to breach more frequently.

Why do they do it? Is it to breathe? The answer is “no.” Whales come to the surface every 7-15 minutes for a breath, while the calves swim to the surface every 3-5 minutes.

Do they breach because it’s fun? Well, it certainly looks that way! But that’s not why they breach.

Do whales breach to communicate with each other? Yes, that’s the answer that scientists have reached. They suspect that humpback whales will breach and slap their fins and flukes on the surface as a way of communicating. We already know that whale songs are a form of communication, and it’s believed that the fin slapping is also used to send messages to other whales. The big splashes likely are for long-distance communication. The bigger the splash, the further the sound travels underwater.

The best way to see this “whale dance” is to be out on the water in a boat. You are closer to the action on a cruise, and you might even get wet! It’s best to let the professionals take you to the whales, as responsible whale-watching guides know how to keep a respectful distance from these magnificent creatures while ensuring that you get a great view.

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The Care and Feeding of Baby Humbpack Whales

After all of this communication to find a mate, a female whale will give birth every 2-3 years in the best of circumstances. Calving in the warm waters of Hawaii during winter gives the newborns a better chance at survival than in the colder waters where they dwell during the summer months. A newborn whale calf can weigh as much as a ton but it still requires much attention.

Calves rely on their mothers for food and protection and are rarely seen far away from them. Moments after birth, the mother whale lifts her newborn to the surface for its first breath and starts providing it some nutritious milk. Typically, mammal babies like kittens and puppies nurse by drawing the milk out from their mother’s nipples. For whales, the force comes from the mother’s end. She uses specific muscles to push the milk into her baby’s mouth. This pushing action makes it possible for a baby whale to take in nourishment underwater.

Whale milk contains a lot of fat, as much as 35 to 50 percent fat. This high-fat content is vital to the survival of the calf. The fat will supply the baby whale with the energy it will need to move through the water alongside its mother continually. This fat will also help the calf to develop a thick layer of blubber that will keep it warm in the cold ocean waters.

When the winter breeding season is over, whale calves will accompany their mothers across the North Pacific to their winter feeding grounds. It is not until a year after their birth that the maternal bond is broken between the mother and juvenile whale.

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Growing Numbers of Humpback Whales & New Threats

During the last twenty years, the North Pacific humpback whale population has grown from approximately 2,000 to more than 21,000! During the peak of humpback whale season in February, it is estimated that “somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 (whales) or so come to the Hawaiian islands each year,” said Marc Lammers, a research ecologist with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always good news. Before a 1966 moratorium on hunting humpback whales in the North Pacific, it is estimated that hunters killed over 30,000 whales. In 1973, humpback whales were listed as endangered.

Hawaii’s waters provide such an essential habitat for these whales that Congress designated the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in 1992. The whales would be classified as endangered and protected by federal and state law. Luckily, one of the two most popular places for whales to congregate is in the waters of Maui County, the area between Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kaho’olawe. The other popular spot for the whales is to the southwest of Molokai. As their numbers continue to strengthen, they have made progress toward the other Hawaiian islands.

Humpbacks still face several threats, such as ship strikes and marine debris, which can lead to entanglement. Local fishing gear is becoming more of an issue, particularly when people put out moorings that are technically illegal. The whales sometimes get wrapped up in these, particularly the younger whales. The calves are very curious, and sometimes they may start to play with some of the gear or the floats. This type of entanglement could cause the whale to drown, and every year teams are called to the site of a trapped whale, where they patiently and carefully remove the lines.

If you spot any marine wildlife in distress, contact NOAA’s hotline at 888-256-9840.

The bottom line is that if you want to see these majestic creatures when you visit Hawaii in the winter, take a Maui whale-watching cruise. These are chartered by professionals who follow the regulations to keep these gentle giants swimming and playing in our waters for generations to come.

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You won’t want to miss your chance to see these incredible animals as they dance and sing their way through the gorgeous turquoise waters of Hawaii. Mahalo for reading our blog.

Helen Shirts

Helen is a creative professional living the good life on Hawaii Island. She enjoys writing about local events, foods, and history. Her inspiration often comes from reading about local traditions and researching them to uncover some amazing stories. She truly enjoys sharing ideas for fun and unusual activities here in the islands she calls home.