Humpback whales on the Big Island

Humpback whales are magnificent creatures and seeing them for the first time makes even the most jaded traveler giddy with excitement. If you’ve booked your trip to Hawai’i during humpback whale season, make sure to pack your binoculars and keep a look out for the whales as you make your way around the Big Island.

Where do they migrate from? And when?

The north Pacific humpback whales make the journey all the way from Alaska, appearing in Hawaiian waters between January and March. The journey is more than 3000 miles and takes the whales more than a month to complete in one direction.

Why do the whales come to Hawai'i?

Humpback whales leave Alaska for Hawai’i in order to mate, give birth and then raise their young calves. The warmer waters are more conducive to breeding, while the oceans around the islands lack the natural predators found in the northern Pacific. There isn’t much food for the whales in sub-tropical oceans and they spend their time in Hawai’i fasting while surviving off their fat reserves. Because it takes almost a year from conception to birth, humpback whales mate during one visit and then give birth the following year when they return to the Hawaiian Islands. Hawai’i offers a relatively safe training ground for new calves to learn the skills they’ll need to survive on their return migration to Alaska.

How do they know how to get to Hawai'i?

Humpback whales have a metalloid substance in part of their frontal lobe. This substance allows the whales to distinguish any changes in the earth’s magnetic field, enabling them to migrate directly to their usual breeding areas.

Fun facts about humpback whales or koholā

6 Humpback Whale
Photo credit: scubadiving.com
  • The Hawaiian word Koholā refers to both reef flats and the humpbacked whale. This is because of the connection between the spray of the surf on the reef and the spray from a whale’s blowhole.
  • Their numbers are on the increase. In the 1960s there were only 1,400 but by 2014 their numbers had grown to 21,000.
  • The average life expectancy of a humpback whale is 50 years.
  • They can weigh close to 40 tons and can reach almost 60 feet in length.
  • They migrate from Alaska to not only Hawai’i but also to the waters off western. Mexico and the southern island of Japan.
  • Almost 10,000 humpback whales visit the Hawaiian Islands every year.
  • Humpback whales can blow bubble nets in order to snare fish.
  • They don’t have teeth, they have bristles (baleen) made from keratin (very similar to the structure of human hair and fingernails).
  • Humpback whales can be identified by their unique markings on the underside of their tail fluke. This makes it relatively easy to identify returning whales.

In 2020, the numbers of whales visiting Hawai’i was the largest it had been for five years. There was also a distinct increase in whale singing activity as tracked by researchers at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary includes the shorelines of Maui, Kaua’i, O’ahu and the Hawai’i Island’s Kona and Kohala coasts.

Whales in Hawaiian Culture

5 Humpback Whale
Photo credit: AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries

Whales feature prominently in Hawaiian culture. The koholā migration to Hawai’i from Alaska is interpreted as a homecoming to the islands. The humpback whales are born in Hawai’i and are therefore considered native born (kamaaina) as well as family guardians (aumakua).

Where to see humpback whales on the Big Island

4 Humpback Whale
Photo credit: viator.com

There are a number of places to view whales on the Big Island. They are often visible on the Kohala Coast and Hilo Bay – where they can be seen from the shore. On the west side of the island, try Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, which has great views over Kawaihae Harbor, and of course here at Horizon we have binoculars and a panoramic view of the ocean from which to spot breaching whales. Your best chance to see whales is in the morning. Be patient and look for the blow, the first indication that a whale has surfaced (when it blows air through its blowhole, forcing a spray of water into the air).

Otherwise, for a more up-close experience try a whale watching tour.

Humpback whales are part of the unique marine ecosystem of Hawai’i. Donʻt miss out  – if you’re on the Big Island during whale season keep an eye out for the majestic humpback whale!  

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