A relatively young humpback whale was sighted off the north side of Kauai on Oct. 1, about three weeks earlier than usual. The Hawaiian islands are a natural marine sanctuary where humpbacks come to breed between November and May.
Marine biologists and researchers say the early visitor doesn’t mean an earlier start to the annual migration. “It’s too soon to predict a trend … to say that these whales are changing their patterns,” said Bill Keener, research associate at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., who tracks humpback whales. “It could just be a young whale coming back early.”
The whale was spotted off Kee Beach on Kauai’s north side, near the beginning of the Napali Coast. The report from people aboard a chartered boat said the whale breached three times, and experts estimate it to have been 20 to 30 feet long, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release.
North Pacific humpback whales take six to eight weeks to journey from Alaska’s cold waters to Hawaii’s tropical climes, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund‘s website says.
Starting in late October and early November, schools of humpbacks head for Hawaii to breed and nurse their young. They stay on the coasts of the islands until May before doubling back on their journey home.
Peter Colombo, general manager of Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkel, guarantees visitors will see humpbacks during winter and spring. “You’re sure to see some activity, whether it’s them breaching or spouting water,” Colombo said.
Humpback whales have primarily dark backs and light bellies, with distinctive pleats on their throats. Their name comes from the small hump in front of their dorsal fin. The North Pacific humpback whales are the fifth largest in the cetacean family, a full-sized adult weighing around 40 tons.
Compared to other whale species, humpbacks are social and easy to spot.
“When we talk about whale-watching, we’re mostly talking about humpback whales,” said Ed Lyman, natural resources specialist at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “They are the ones most active on the surface of the water.”
These marine animals are natural acrobats and a spectacle for travelers, often throwing their bodies several feet above the water in spectacular breaching displays. They also are well-known songsters. Several whale-watching tours use hydrophones to allow visitors to listen to the whales and their underwater noises.
In the early 20th century, commercial whaling seriously jeopardized the species. Since 1985, after the the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on killing whales, the population of humpbacks rebounded. Keener said the Hawaiian humpback rates have increased tenfold compared to the 1970s.
The marine sanctuary lists 10 places in Hawaii that are good for whale watching, including Makapuu Lighthouse, Halona Blowhole, Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head Scenic Lookout on Oahu; plus the Sanctuary Education Center on Maui; and Kapaa Beach Park on the island of Hawaii. Check out the full whale-watching list.
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In case you aren’t traveling to Hawaii anytime soon, humpback whales also travel along the California coast between April and October. Interested travelers can purchase a ticket ranging from $45 to $150 for a whale-watching tour.