MAUI Whale Season

October & November – First whale sightings
December – March, Whale season
February – Peak season

Without a doubt, one of the most amazing marine wildlife adventures you’ll ever have the opportunity to partake in is a chance to witness the majesty of the North Pacific humpback whales in their natural environment Year, after year, these magical mammals grace Hawaiian waters and shorelines for their annual Winter migration through the North Pacific Ocean (roughly November-March).

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Whale Watching
in Maui Hawaii

Without a doubt, one of the most amazing marine wildlife adventures you’ll ever have the opportunity to partake in is a chance to witness the majesty of the North Pacific Humpback Whales in their natural environment. Year, after year, these magical mammals grace Hawaiian waters and shorelines for their annual Winter migration through the North Pacific Ocean (roughly November-May).

First, it’s important to know that there are in fact 3 separate populations of the North Pacific Humpback Whale. These populations are scientifically referred to as “stocks.” The California/Oregon/Washington stock migrates from British Columbia to Central America. The Western North Pacific stock migrates from the Alaskan Kodiak Archipelago to Japan waters. Finally, Hawaii’s Kohola (whales in the ancient Hawaiian language), also known as the Central North Pacific stock, migrate between Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.
The exact number of Humpback whales that visit Hawaii every year is unknown, but marine biologists have speculated that an even number of whales make up each stock. Some speculate that 1/3 of the total population of North Pacific Humpback Whales arrive in Hawaii every year, others stating that it could be 1/2 of the total population. But, it is also a fact that the majority of Humpback calves born each year are also born in Hawaii. With all of that information in mind, biologists overall believe that concerning stock populations migrational locations, Humpback Whale presence in Hawaii is the largest. Although each stock is distinct in migration habits, there is an intermixing of stocks, which happens in Alaskan waters during the Summer months.

Due to the efforts of North Pacific Humpback Whale conservation, the whale population has been steadily increasing over the past 50 years. In 1966, the North Pacific Humpback Whale population was believed to be approximately 1,400. In 1993, marine conservationists estimated 6,000, and in 2014, the population of North Pacific Humpback Whales is believed to be 21,000.

Conservation

Since the early 1970s, the North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been under protection by a variety of national and international agreements.

The principal U.S. agreements are the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by the NOAA (National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration), and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna And Flora Treaty (CITES) of 1973.

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humpback whale conservation graph
humpback whale

Conservation

Since the early 1970s, the North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been under protection by a variety of national and international agreements.

The principal U.S. agreements are the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by the NOAA (National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration), and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna And Flora Treaty (CITES) of 1973.

The humpback whales can no longer be poached, fished, harassed, corralled, or traded between countries; the whales cannot be “owned” by any governmental entity, and their preservation is an international effort due to their migratory habits. Over 180-countries and nations have agreed to work collaboratively to conserve and protect this species. Along with national and international governmental entities, there are also many United States-based nonprofit organizations that focus specifically on North Pacific humpback whale protection and conservation.

Biology

North Pacific humpback whales are the fifth largest whale species in the world and can weigh anywhere between 25-40 tons (50,000 -80,000 lbs), and approximately 1 ton (2,000 lbs) as newborns.

US UnitsEU Units

20

minutes is the
maximum dive
time

80,00036 200

poundskg is the weight of
an adult whale, equal
to 6 elephants

40

minutes a male
humpback's song
often lasts

10045

poundskg a whale
calf can grow
every day

50

years is average
life expectancy

3,5005 632

mileskilometers humpback
whales migrate
each year

Humpback whales can grow up to 60 feet in length, the females being larger sized of the breed.

Their upper (dorsal) body is primarily a dark shade of grey, with distinct areas of white on their flippers (pectoral fins) and under (ventral) bellies. On average, the North Pacific humpback whale can live for about 50 years (although there have been accounts living up to 90 years), and reach sexual maturity between 5-7 years old.

Humpback whale infographic
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Biology

North Pacific humpback whales are the fifth largest whale species in the world and can weigh anywhere between 25-40 tons (50,000-80,000 lbs), and approximately 1 ton (2,000 lbs) as newborns.

Humpback whales can grow up to 60 feet in length, the females being larger sized of the breed.

Their upper (dorsal) body is primarily a dark shade of grey, with distinct areas of white on their flippers (pectoral fins) and under (ventral) bellies. On average, the North Pacific humpback whale can live for about 50 years (although there have been accounts living up to 90 years), and reach sexual maturity between 5-7 years old.

The North Pacific humpback whales feed on small crustaceans, krill, plankton, and small fish, consuming up to 3,000 lbs of food per day. Humpbacks don’t ever feed in Hawaii’s oceans; they only feed during their Alaskan Summers, focusing on storing strength and the blubber that they will live off of during their annual Winter migration to Hawaii.

The term “humpback” refers to the high arch made by the body of the whale while diving. The heads of the humpback whales are wide and rounded when seen from above, but more slender in profile. The tops of their heads and lower jaws are covered in bumpy knobs, which are ducts that contain at least one fibrous hair follicle whose purpose provides a sense of “touch,” like a whisker. Humpback whales have 20-35 underbelly (ventral) grooves that extend past their naval, and compared to other whale species, their bodies are not as streamlined. Humpbacks are more rounded, and they narrow down towards their tailstock (peduncle).

Humpback whales have large front flippers (pectoral fins) that grow on average up to 15 feet each in length and 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 tails (flukes) are just as individual as a palm print for humans; it has become one of the ways that marine scientists have been able to identify specific whales during research.

WHALES ARE KAMAAINA

Hawaiian History
"Kohola"

Kohola (Humpback Whales) have been visiting Hawaii since the ancient Polynesian Era, 1-600 AD.

  • 18th Century
  • 1778
  • 1819
  • 1824
  • 1859
  • Early 1900s
  • 1973
  • 1992
  • 1998
Ancient kahunas (priests) would recite the Kumulipo chant—the Hawaiian chant
of creation—the second section tells the birth of the whale: “Hanau ka palaoa
noho I kai”— born is the whale living in the ocean.
Mistaken as the Lono (God associated with fertility),
James Cook was greeted upon his arrival to Hawai’i.
Hawai‘i’s whaling era begins when two New England ships become the first
whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.
Whale products are in high demand.
The whaling industry is prominent in the
island economy for about 40 years.
The end of the whaling industry is brought about by the discovery of
a new type of oil in Pennsylvania which replaces whale oil.
The global population of humpbacks is depleted
by the commercial whaling industry.
The United States government makes it illegal to hunt, harm, or disturb
humpback whales. The Endangered Species Act is passed. The humpback
whale is listed as endangered.
Congress enacts the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine
Sanctuary, recognizing the vital role the Hawaiian Islands have in the
preservation of endangered humpback whales.
The Sanctuary is managed in an equal partnership by the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Hawai‘i.
Hawaii history

Archeologists have found Hawaiian petroglyphs (ancient carvings on stone) that represent proof that humpback whales have historically frequented the Hawaiian Islands. Kohola petroglyphs were found in Olowalu on Maui, Pohue on the Big Island, and Palaoa Hill (Whale Hill) on the Island of Lanai. The petroglyphs depict an ancient human figure riding the back of a whale.

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Hawaiian History
"Kohola"

Kohola (humpback whales) have been visiting Hawaii since the ancient Polynesian Era, 1-600 AD.

Archeologists have found Hawaiian petroglyphs (ancient carvings on stone) that represent proof that humpback whales have historically frequented the Hawaiian Islands. Kohola petroglyphs were found in Olowalu on Maui, Pohue on the Big Island, and Palaoa Hill (Whale Hill) on the Island of Lanai. The petroglyphs depict an ancient human figure riding the back of a whale.

Proof of whale life in Hawaiian culture is seen throughout legends and folklore, and many ritual artifacts; musical instruments, carvings, ceremonial dress, and ancient whale tooth necklaces that were only allowed to be worn by Hawaii’s high ranking chiefs and the Ali’i (royalty). In Hawaii, the North Pacific humpback whale is believed to be an ‘aumakua (ancestors), and a direct representation of Kanaloa, the divine and supreme Hawaiian demigod of ocean animals.

Migration

Hawaii’s North Pacific humpback whales travel over 3,500 miles from Alaskan waters to Hawaiian oceans every year during their annual Winter migration.

humpback whales migration graph
two humpback whales migrating

Marine scientists have noted that they can travel between 3-7 miles per hour, with very few stops. It is believed that each one-way journey can take up to 4-6 weeks, and as little as 36 days. It is also believed that an average of 8,000-10,000 humpback whales visit Hawaii every year, and the number is growing with the increase in population.

Why do the North Pacific
humpback whales migrate
to Hawaii?

The humpbacks travel from the cold Alaskan waters to the warm, subtropical climate of Hawaiian oceans for three main reasons; to breed, to birth, and to raise their young calves in safety. Humpback whales have an 11 to 12-month gestational period, so baby humpback calves are both conceived and birthed in Hawaii. So, it is safe to assume that last season’s breeding, becomes the following season’s birthing. Marine scientists believe that humpback whales enjoy Hawaii’s oceans for the warm waters, the variety of ocean depths, underwater visibility, and the lack of natural predators.

Mating
& Birthing

The North Pacific humpback whales mate in Hawaii’s oceans. The humpbacks are known to be polygamous mammals, which means that they are not monogamous but promiscuous breeders.

Males do not play a parental role in the early life of calves, and research has noted that genetic testing shows that over the breeding life of an individual female, calves will have different fathers. Post-mating, female humpback whales, are rarely seen in the presence of the males in which they mated.

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humpback whale mother and her calf
humpback whale conservation graph

12

months is a
humpback whale
gestation period

2000

pounds is an
average weight
of calves

1

inch per day
is the rate of
calves growth

turtle

Mating
& Birthing

The North Pacific humpback whales mate in Hawaii’s oceans. The humpbacks are known to be polygamous mammals, which means that they are not monogamous but promiscuous breeders.

maui humpback weightMales do not play a parental role in the early life of calves, and research has noted that genetic testing shows that over the breeding life of an individual female, calves will have different fathers. Post-mating, female humpback whales, are rarely seen in the presence of the males in which they mated.

Although, you will see male humpbacks protecting and guarding female whales during their stay in Hawaii. These males are also continually seen throughout the Winter season exhibiting aggressive behavior towards any other males, continuing to protect the females from the birth of the baby calves to the final escort out of Hawaiian waters. Aggressive male-to-male behavior is antagonistic with common displays of vocal outbursts, chasing, fighting, thrusting, thrashing, bubble and spouting displays. This behavior can result in bloodshed, but they do not fight to the death.

The humpback whale gestation period is 11 to 12 months. Calves are born anywhere between 13 to 16 feet in length, and on average weigh 2,000 lbs. These mammals feed on their mothers 50% fat milk, and gain approximately 100 pounds, and gain 1 inch per day. Humpback whale mothers are incredibly playful, protective and affectionate with their baby calves. The mother will wean a baby calve anywhere between 4-6 months old.

Towards the end of the Winter Season, during Hawaii’s first months of Spring, it is quite common to see the quickly growing humpback whale calves frolic and play on the surface of the ocean. In Hawaiian waters, the baby calves will learn the motor skills and vital masteries that are necessary for survival. These early learned behavioral skills will translate into the adult behaviors that will ensure their safety and livelihood for the long migration back to Alaska.

Surface
Behavior

The graceful, magical and intelligent North Pacific humpback whales exhibit a variety of behaviors in and above the ocean surface. In Hawaii, and especially from Maui, spectators have a rare chance to witness their marine skills from the shoreline or on
a fantastic Hawaii whale watching tour.

blow
spy hop
tail slap
pectoral slap
head lunge
peduncle throw
peduncle arch
fluke up dive
breach
fluke down

Blow

Adult humpbacks swim to the surface to breathe usually every 10-15 minutes, but they can remain submerged for up to 45 minutes. Humpback calves come to the surface to breathe every 3-5 minutes, so it’s quite common to see them more frequently mid-season. The first way to sight a humpback whale is to look for the blowing spray above the ocean surface; this is the whale breathing!

Spy hop

When a humpback vertically rises above the ocean surface, this is called a spy hop, or a head rise. Marine scientists believe that this is the humpback’s way of sensing what’s going on on the ocean surface. In Hawaii, we think that this is the humpback whale’s way of saying ALOHA.

Tail slap

A tail slap is when a humpback raises its fluke (tail) out of the water and forcefully slaps it on the surface. This can be a repetitive behavior, which marine scientists believe is a warning in whale communication.

Pectoral slap

Humpbacks will slap one or both of their flippers (pectoral fins) against the ocean
surface. This is believed to be a signal for communication between whales.

Head lunge

It is common to see the male humpbacks' lunge their heads towards and against each
other during aggressive and competitive behavior. This is also called a head slap.

Peduncle throw

This is one of the most uncommonly seen behaviors, mostly exhibited in aggression. A
peduncle throw is when a humpback powerfully throws the lower portion of its body
sideways across the surface of the ocean.

Peduncle arch

A peduncle arch, also known as a ‘round out,’ is one of the most easily spotted behaviors
of the Humpbacks. You don’t see much of the whale, except for a rounded part of their back
skimming over the surface of the ocean as they prepare to dive.

Fluke up dive

Characterized with an even amount of the tail on the surface of the ocean, a fluke up dive
is seen when humpbacks are in an upside down upward arch, slowly rolling into a dive
towards the floor of the ocean.

Breach

You will definitely know when you see a humpback whale breaching! This is surely
their most dramatic and acrobatic-like act where they quickly gain speed and launch
their whole body out of the ocean! They powerfully land on the surface of the ocean
with a huge splash!

Fluke down

When a humpback throws his whole tail out of the water and triumphs with a
dramatic slap on the ocean surface, it is called a peduncle slap.

Download guide
humpback whale song

12

miles away
their singing
can be heard

40

minutes is
how long their
songs can last

60

feet below the
ocean surface
the male's sing

00:00

Whale songs

The North Pacific humpback whales have incredible skill and ritual that is unlike any other whale, they sing underwater, and can be heard from up to 12 miles away.

Not all humpbacks sing; it is only specific males, and those males are lone mammals. They are singular in their species, and it is unknown if these whales breed, or if the skill blossoms at a specific age.

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Whale songs

The North Pacific humpback whales have incredible skill and ritual that is unlike any other whale, they sing underwater, and can be heard from up to 12 miles away.

maui whale songsNot all humpbacks sing; it is only specific males, and those males are lone mammals. They are singular in their species, and it is unknown if these whales breed, or if the skill blossoms at a specific age.

There are much speculation and research into this fantastic humpback whale characteristic. The males sing 50 to 60 feet below the ocean surface with their heads pointing down, and their tails pointed up.

Why Do The Humpback Whales Sing?

All of the reasons why the humpback whales sing is unknown. Some believe that there are spiritual and ceremonial reasons, and others think that it is just communication. Marine scientists do know that the Humpback males sing in breeding grounds to attract females and that the songs ward off foreign males. Their songs can last from 20-40 minutes and are likened to a complex classical music concerto when broken down into specific phrases and units.

Season after season in Hawaii, the Whale Songs are recorded by multiple non-profits and vested marine life protection groups. There is such a meticulous pattern to their songs that it has been noted that where they stop the song at the end of a season, is where they pick right up again at the beginning of the next. It is possible to hear them underwater when you’re swimming or snorkeling near the Humpback Whales. On Maui, you can listen to the whale song while underwater in West Maui; Lahaina, Ka’anapali, and Kapalua beaches.

Shoreline
Viewing

The Island of Maui is without a doubt the best place to be in Hawaii for whale watching from the shoreline.

You can watch them from your coastal resort, from the lanai (porch/balcony) of your vacation rental or hotel room, or from a scenic lookout. See them from the sand, and be very careful if you are watching them as you are driving. The most common road to see humpback whales breach and play from a distance is on the stretch of Highway 30 between Ma’alaea and Lahaina.

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Shoreline
Viewing

The Island of Maui is without a doubt the best place to be in Hawaii for whale watching from the shoreline.

Ma’alaea and Lahaina

You can watch them from your coastal resort, from the lanai (porch/balcony) of your vacation rental or hotel room, or from a scenic lookout. See them from the sand, and be very careful if you are watching them as you are driving. The most common road to see humpback whales breach and play from a distance is on the stretch of Highway 30 between Ma’alaea and Lahaina.

This can also be one of the windiest drives on Maui and one of the busiest highways on Maui due to tourist traffic. So, with all this in mind, make sure to be extremely focused and aware when driving on Maui during the Winter months. It is so easy to become completely enthralled by one of nature’s biggest wonders while driving to your next destination. To avoid a crash or a fender bender, please keep your eyes on the road, or pull over to a safe place to watch them.

You can also watch the humpback whales offshore in South Maui coastal areas (Kihei and Wailea), and off of North Shore beaches (Paia Bay, and Ho’okipa Beach Park).

Maui shoreline map maui hawaii whale map

Best Boat Tours

Maui whale watching tours are truly
an exceptional experience!

If you are ready to check out the North Pacific humpback whales in Hawaii, know that there are a variety of ways to experience it, and the best place to do it is on the Island of Maui.

You can book a classic Maui whale watching tour, or a combo whale watching and snorkel tour. You can also see the humpback whales in a calmer atmosphere during a romantic sunset cruise, or a private boat charter.

When whale watching on Maui, you can expect to be on the very best ocean vessel for optimum whale watching and safety. Only with a professional Captain and an expert crew, guests will learn more information about the North Pacific humpback whale; habits, new research and statistics, ways to spot them in the ocean, and a chance to hear a whale song. On a whale watching tour, everything you need can be provided including meals and beverages, snorkel gear, safety equipment and more.

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