You see the phrase in most of the “visit Hawaii” brochures, ads and on-line postings: “Whale watching in the winter months.” It’s a fairly innocuous phrase, along with “lush tropical gardens” and “white sand beaches.”
But anyone who has witnessed these fascinating monsters arch their backs and raise their tail flukes above water in preparation for dives, and has heard them emit their stored air through their blowholes (which can be heard from 800 feet away) will tell you the experience is thrilling and unforgettable. (It’s the arching of their backs maneuver that has earned them the “humpback” nickname.) Even more spectacular is the breach, a powerful acrobatic display where the humpback uses its tail to launch itself out of the water, landing back onto the surface with a resounding splash.
Every year, humpback whales of the North Pacific migrate to the main Hawaiian islands during the winter months. (The early ones have arrived already this year.) The round-trip distance they travel during this annual migration is approximately 4,000 miles, one of the longest migration distances of any animal species. During their stay in Hawaii, they do not feed, but rely upon stored energy. Near the islands, the whales devote most of their time to mating and giving birth to their calves.
While they’re here, they’re renowned for their many and various acrobatic displays: the aforementioned head lunge and blow, the pec slap (in which humpbacks roll onto their sides or backs and slowly slap the water’s surface with one fin or both fins simultaneously), the tail slap (which can be heard for miles), the lobtail slap (where the whale will thrash the surface of the water by whipping its upraised flukes from side to side), and the head lunge (not unlike a dog baring its teeth at a perceived opponent).
While whale watching in Hawaii is touted by all the islands, the protected Auau Channel and shallow warm waters off the west coast of Maui (Lahaina, Kaanapali) are definitely the best places to watch. You can get a good view from the shoreline as the whales are left undisturbed and pollution from boats is avoided.
Don’t take the hype for whale-watching lightly as you plan your Hawaii vacation. It’s a spectacle that will stay with you forever.
Posted by Jim Winpenny
October 13th, 2008