Counting Hawaii's Humpback Whales

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Counting Hawaii's Humpback Whales

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai , Maui
Mar 11, 2010

Back in the day, when I used to visit Hawaii on vacation, I spent hours perched on a cliff above the ocean on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai watching humpback whales in the near-shore waters in the hopes of witnessing this.

With binoculars to my eyes, I’d watch a 17-foot humpback whale calf breach alongside its mother. I’d watch a 45-ton adult whale slap its fluke a dozen times on the surface of the water, as if it was banging a drum. I’d watch a group make its way from east to west one day and west to east the next day and wonder whether it was the same mother, calf and escort that I’d seen the day before.

Now that I live in Hawaii, I still find time to go whale-watching. Some things never change.

This past Saturday, I sat atop Crater Hill at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge with binoculars in hand, once again.

(By the way, my waterproof binoculars reside in my car—for ready use—and like my cell phone, I try to pull the car over completely before I raise them to my head. That’s a good tip for you, too—there is scientific proof that vacationers sometimes forget to pack their brains alongside their swimsuits and slippers in their suitcases. That’s science, people, not me talking.)

In Hawaii, we take our endangered humpback whales seriously. February is known as Humpback Whale Awareness Month and the last Saturdays of January, February and March are officially known as Whale Count Days for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Hundreds of tsunami, however, as was the case on Saturday, February 27, 2010, but we dutifully re-schedule, which is how I ended up on Crater Hill this past Saturday.

It wasn’t a particularly good whale-watching day. The trade winds that prevent Hawaii from baking in all that tropical sun had been roaring across the archipelago since the last tsunami wave washed through Hawaii a week before. Before the sun could burn off the clouds, squalls periodically darkened the horizon like a kid flipping a light switch on and off. The combination of white-capped wind waves and low-riding storm clouds cut our visibility in half.

When the whales weren’t performing any of the behaviors we’d been trained to spot—blow, breach, pec slap, fluke slap—I admit that our eyes strayed a bit. How could you NOT take a peek at the hundreds of red-footed boobies flying about? Or the great frigatebird with its gular patch partially inflated? Or the lone brown boobie winging its way through the refuge? Or the red-tailed tropicbirds dancing their courtship two-step? Or white-tailed tropicbirds backing their way onto a perch in the cliff? Or the first of the wedge-tailed shearwaters returning to Hawaii to breed? And did I mention that unidentified bird exhibiting falcon-ish dive behavior that made all three of us gasp? Or the view?

While much has not changed in my life—I’ve lived in Hawaii for 10 years now, and I still can’t get enough of the humpback whales—much has changed in the world of humpback whale research since I spied my first humpback whale in Hawaii some 20 years ago. We call them “groups” now, not “pods.” We know the escort is a male, not an auntie, and he’s not protecting the mother and calf as protecting his claim to be first on her dance card when she’s ready to tango. We know that these humpback whales range far and wide throughout the Hawaiian Island chain and do not necessarily hang out in any one area for long.  And where we once counted hundreds, we now count thousands of humpback whales birthing, breeding and breaching in Hawaii's water during the winter.  In fact, the latest number puts the marine mammal's visitor population at 10,000.

And, yet, much about humpback whales remains unknown. Science has not recorded a live birth and until this season—or so rumor has it—no officially sighting of mating behavior has been witnessed, either. It seems these great behemoths roaming all the seas on our globe are slippery creatures.

Jim Darling has spent the past 30 years researching these marine mammals. His area of specialty is whale song. Did you know whales sing? Did you know you could buy CDs of whale songs? For a sampler, listen here.

According to Jim, it's the males who sing.  Their song is a complex series of sounds repeated over and over and, because it's mostly heard in Hawaii (versus the feeding grounds of Alaska), Jim believes the singing is related to breeding.  "Singers," as they are called by the scientists, are usually lone adult whales who may sing for hours at a time.  And they have a special "singing posture," too.  They typically position themselves nose down and tail up at a 45-degree angle about 20 to 40 feet below the ocean's surface.  The song itself typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes and is, then, repeated.  And here is the really interesting part, if you ask me:  The song progressively changes throughout the season--yet all the singers essentially sing the same version at any one time.

Last year, Jim published Hawaii's Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries.

If you like Hawaii’s humpback whales, I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

• The book focuses on humpback whales in Hawaii. It’s a guide to what you can expect to witness from Hawaii's shores or a boat from November through April each year.  Jim shares information on the migration to and from Hawaii, the reproductive cycles and the mating behavior of humpback whales.  He also details the behavior of newborns and juveniles.

• You can put your camera away.  Hundreds of photographs--many by world-renowned Flip Nicklin--litter the book.  If you didn't read a word in the book, the photos alone tell the story of Hawaii's humpbacks.

• Jim is not a know-it-all.  There are probably few others who know as much about humpback whales as Jim, but he writes a even-handed book.  He includes a list of references and sources and credits other researchers and their various hypotheses throughout.  In the case of his own speciality--singing, Jim presents three possible reasons for the behavior:  1) A display to attract females and repel males; 2) A display between males to signal status; and 3) A measure of association between males.

In the coming days, I’ll share an interview I conducted with Jim, so check back. And later this month, I’ll join Jim aboard his whale research boat off Maui. HOW EXCITING IS THAT? I’ll be sure to share the fun with you here, as best I can. Let me know if you have any questions about whales, and I’ll see if I can find some answers for you—if they exist.


Related stories:
Humpback Whales:  The Not So Gentle Giants of the Sea
Special Compilation of Songs Promotes Ocean Conservation


Our A to Z Whale Guide


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