Whales… Like You’ve Never Seen Them!

Mar 1, 2022 | General Information

Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world. Their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae (“big wing of New England”) refers to giant pectoral fins which can grow up to 16 feet long. “New England” in their name harks back to sightings by European whalers off the coast of New England.

In the northern hemisphere, humpback whales are found in the north Pacific, from South-East Alaska, Prince William Sound, and British Columbia and migrate seasonally to Hawaii, the Gulf of California, Mexico and Costa Rica. Where they may be found depends on the time of year. In the summer, many humpbacks spend their time in high-latitude feeding areas such of the Gulf of Alaska or the Gulf of Maine. During the winter, they swim to warm waters closer to the Equator, around Hawaii, South America and Africa. (The exception is humpbacks that live in the Arabian Sea where they stay year-round.)

In Hawaii the first humpback whale of the new season was seen on October 1, 2019 off the coast of Kauai. Captains aboard the Holo Holo Charter’s Adventurer II observed this early arriver about a mile off Ke’e Beach on the north shore of Kauai. According to the ship’s captains, this whale must have been excited to be back in Hawaii because he or she breached three or four times (Ha-ha). The humpback obviously was excited to be early. The main part of humpback whale season doesn’t begin until late December to early January.

The Hawaiian Islands are a national marine sanctuary for humpback whales — a protected environment for these amazing creatures to breed and give birth. Officially November, December and January are the start of the humpback whale season. January, February and March usually are the best months to see humpbacks in Hawaii. December and April are good months. Whale watching boat tours offer a close view of humpbacks and typically run from mid-December to mid-April. Trustpilot reviews by visitors taking these boat tours all express delight seeing humpbacks spout, tail break the ocean’s surface and breach by jumping out of the water.

The best places for humpback whale sightings are:

On the north and west coasts of Kauai

On the north shore of Oahu and the easternmost tip

The area between Molokai, Lanai and Maui

West and South Maui

The area north of Kona and up the Kohala Coast of the Big Island

Humpback whales are not the biggest whales. (Blue Whales hold that title.) Humpbacks can grow to 60 feet and weigh as much as 40 tons. Their flippers can grow up to 16 feet. Their massive tails grow up to 18 feet in width. Like most whales, females are larger than males. Humpbacks’ broad and rounded heads are covered with knobs (tubercles), each of which contains a stiff hair, thought by scientists to be motion detectors. They have a dorsal fin on their backs. Its shape and color pattern are unique to each whale which enables researchers to identify, catalog and monitor humpback whale migration, population size, sexual maturity and behavior patterns.

Humpback whales are the only baleen whales that jump completely out of the water (breaching). The most acrobatic of whales, they have a repertoire of at least 15 different surface behaviors. Another, and one of the most distinctive and impressive features of humpback whales, is that they “sing” underwater, emitting sounds that science says serve as communication with other whales. By making these sounds, the whales are trying to find a mate for reproduction or mark their territory. These migratory creatures move to tropical waters like Hawaii to mate and breed.

Humpback’s “songs,” that can carry great distances, actually are sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises. Humpback calves are known to “whisper” to their mothers. Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers in what appear to be gestures of affection. These “songs” and “whispers” accentuate the complexity and mystery of humpbacks. For years scientists have been studying these sounds and behaviors to decipher their meaning. Fortunately conservationists and scientists have teamed up to stop the worst threats to the humpback whale population that was severely reduced before the 1985 ban on commercial whaling.

There’s much that science still doesn’t know about humpback whales. For example,Humpbacks use their massive tail fin (fluke) to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. Scientists aren’t sure of the purpose served by this behavior. Simply fun or perhaps cleaning pests from their skin? Whalewatchers on tours in Hawaii and elsewhere, however, don’t care about the reason for this unique behavior. Everyone can’t help but be thrilled as the humpback species raises its rear torso and tail out of the water, slaps the water with their flukes and pectoral fins or rise nose-first out of the water, twist around, and slam their lower half down on the ocean’s surface.