Learn about these magnificent creates by scrolling through fascinating whale facts and photos below.
Whale Watching in Maui Hawaii
Whale Season November – May, with the majority of whales January – March, February being peak season.
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.
Since the early 1970‘s, the North Pacific Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been under protection by a variety of national and international agreements. The main 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.
The North Pacific Humpback Whales feed on small crustaceans, krill, plankton and small fish, consuming up to 3,000-lbs of food per day. Humpback’s 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.
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.
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 have been 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 aumukua (ancestors), and a direct representation of Kanaloa, the divine and supreme Hawaiian demigod of ocean animals.
Hawaii’s North Pacific Humpback Whales travel over 3,500-miles from Alaskan waters to Hawaiian oceans every year during their annual Winter migration. 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 Humpback’s 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 Humpback’s are known to be polygynous mammals, which means that are not monogamous, and are 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 that they mated with. Although, you will see male Humpback’s 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 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 extremely playful, protective and affectionate with their baby calves. The mother will wean a baby calve anywhere between 4-6 months old.
Towards then 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.
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 an amazing Hawaii whale watching tour.
10 main surface behaviors of the North Pacific Humpback Whale:
- BLOW – Adult Humpback’s 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 site a Humpback Whale is to look for the blow 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 believe that this is the Humpback Whale’s way of saying aloha.
- TAIL SLAP – A tail slap is when a Humpback raises it’s 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 – Humpback’s 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 male Humpback’s head lunge towards and against each other during aggressive and competitive behavior. This is also called a head slap.
- PEDUNCLE SLAP – 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.
- 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 Humpback’s 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 our of the ocean! They powerfully land on the surface of the ocean with a huge splash!
The North Pacific Humpback Whales have a really beautiful skill and ritual that is unlike any other whale, they sing under water, and can be heard from up to 12-miles away. Not all Humpback’s 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 is much speculation and research into this amazing Humpback Whale characteristic. The male’s 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 their are spiritual and ritualistic reasons, and others believe 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 liken 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 in the beginning of the next. It is possible to hear them under water when you’re swimming or snorkeling near the Humpback Whales. On Maui, you can hear the whale song while underwater in West Maui; Lahaina, Ka’anapali, and Kapalua beaches.
You can also watch the Humpback Whales off shore in South Maui coastal areas (Kihei and Wailea), and off of North Shore beaches (Paia Bay, and Ho’okipa Beach Park).
Maui Whale Gallery
View some of our favorite Maui whale watching photos (and soon videos!) Click on each image to learn more about their unique behavior.
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 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.
Check out some of the best Maui whale watching options below!
Boat Tours -
BEST WHALE WATCHING TOURS ON MAUI
Pride of Maui Whale Watching Snorkel Tour
Enjoy guaranteed Humpback Whale sightings, beautiful scenery, and snorkeling all at once on the Pride of Maui. This whale watching trip boasts unobstructed 360 views of the whales, open bar, and grilled lunches.
Leilani Whale Watch Small Group Boat Tour
This small group private boat tour features knowledgeable naturalists to help educate guests about both Maui and the Humpback Whales that spend their winters here.
Maui Kayak Adventures Whale Watch Tour
Get up close and personal with the whales by paddling out to greet them. With no engine noise, Kayaks allow to view whales with less disturbance to their natural routine.