Maui Whale Watching
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The Hawaiian Islands are the only known breeding and birthing areas for Humpback whales in the United States. No wonder Maui Whale Watching in Hawaii is among the most popular commercial activities for both locals and tourists alike.
Each winter, the islands become home to as many as 10,000 Humpbacks, making the tropical, clear, shallow, and protected waters of Hawaii one of the best natural laboratories in the world to study Humpbacks and similarly, to book a whale watch.
There is no good data on when Humpbacks began to make this journey each year to spend winter months in the warm, hospitable Pacific waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. Some believe the mass migration of Humpback whales to Hawaiian waters did not begin until the twentieth century.
Humpback Whale Habits
Humpback whales' biological or scientific name is Megaptera noveangliae. They are called "kohola" in the native Hawaiian language. Two different populations of Humpback whales spend the warmer summer months in either the Arctic or Antarctic waters feeding on krill. As winter approaches they begin their annual migrations. Southern hemisphere Humpbacks head north in May to the central and southern Great Barrier Reef area of Australia.
Northern hemisphere Humpbacks start their migration in October to the Hawaiian Islands. Calves are born in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef or Hawaii and begin their first migration with their mothers back toward the Arctic or Antarctica.
The round-trip distance they travel during this annual migration is up to 6,000 miles, one of the longest migration distances of any animal species. During their stay in Hawaii, they do not feed, but rely upon energy stored in their blubber. Instead of feeding, the whales devote most of their time to mating and bearing their calves.
Humpback whales become reproductively mature when they are between 4 and 8 years of age. As mentioned, they mate during their winter migration to warmer waters, and eleven to twelve months later, upon their return to winter breeding grounds, the mother gives birth to a single calf.
At birth, calves are approximately 13 feet long and weigh two tons. This changes quickly however, as the mother must feed her newborn about 100 pounds of milk each day for a period of five to seven months until it is weaned.
After weaning, the calf has doubled its length and has increased its weight five times, attaining a size of about 27 feet and 10 tons. Usually, a female Humpback will bear one calf every two or three years. The maximum rate of reproduction for the species is one calf per year, but this is seldom practiced as it puts quite a strain on the mother whale. Scientists estimate the average life span of Humpbacks in the wild to be between 30 and 40 years, although no one knows for certain.
Well known for their acrobatic surface displays, Humpback whales are a favorite for whale watchers around the world. Whether there is any meaning inherent to these impressive displays, however, is still unknown. But you don't need to be a research scientist to experience and enjoy wild Humpback whales exhibiting a wide variety of behaviors. HawaiiActive.com is located on Maui and offers a variety of Whale watching tours on the island.
Of all the Hawaiian Islands, Maui has both a greater population of Humpbacks and thus more whale watching tours, primarily due to the relatively shallow and protected waters between the four islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe. During the ice age when ocean levels were much lower, these islands were connected by land. Today, referred to as "Maui Nui," they comprise Maui County.
Maui Whale Organizations
A number of organizations have been formed on Maui to conduct Humpback Whale research. The two most prominent are Pacific Whale Foundation, founded in the 1970s by Greg Kaufman, conducts a large, commercial, whale-watching operation with half a dozen vessels docked in Lahaina and Maalaea harbors. It contains a non-profit education/research arm as well.
The Whale Trust was started a decade ago as strictly a research organization. It has three co-founders: Executive Director Meagan Jones; Jim Darling, Scientific Director; and photographer Charles "Flip" Nicklin.
The Whale Trust is presently pursuing a number of ongoing research experiments in Hawaii that are focused on: Humpback behavior; social norms; and communication. Here is some of what they have learned.
Humpback Whale Societies
Most Humpback social groups or communities are believed to be short-lived, with the longest lasting bond being between mother and calf. Still, there are hints of unexplored depths of communication.
Humpback whales will usually devour close to an entire ton of nourishment per day in order to survive the winter fasting period! A Humpback's diet consists of shrimp-like crustaceans called kill (euphausiids) and various types of small schooling fish, including herring, capelin, sand lance, and mackerel.
Whale Discovery Cruises on Maui
Humpbacks are baleen whales, which means they feed by straining their food from seawater through a series of plates on their upper jaws. They strain out plankton and very small crustaceans called krill from the water.
Humpback whales take their name from their habit of exposing a large central area of their backs when diving, as they do repeatedly when swimming along near the water surface.
Humpbacks are also known for their complex underwater vocalisations or whale songs.
Humpback whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal, migrating as far as 5,000 miles Alaskan summer feeding areas and Hawaii's breeding grounds.
Humpback whales undergo prolonged periods of fasting and have completely separated feeding from breeding and calving activities during the winter.
Humpbacks have a very rough and ragged appearance once you get up close, with many knobs and lumps on their skin, liberally interspersed with barnacles.
Other outstanding features of the Humpbacks' appearance are their huge pectoral fins which can be up to a third the length of their entire body, and their huge tail flukes. These body-parts are featured in some of the most interesting of whale behaviors: pectoral fin extension, pec slapping, and tail slapping.
Humpbacks' large, winglike flippers can extend to 14 feet. Very energetic, they often leap clear of the water, spin, or slap their fluke or flipper on the water's surface.
Humpbacks are also known to be curious, and are renowned for swimming up really close to whale watching boats where they poke their heads out of the water to get a good look at the humans.
Humpback whales begin arriving in Hawaiian waters during November, with peak whale watching season extending from December through April, when the whales once again say goodbye to Hawaii and return to their summer homes to feed and grow in Alaskan waters.
Approximately 25% of what Humpbacks eat during the summer is stored in the form of fat to provide extra energy and insulation during their winter fast when they migrate to warmer waters.
Humpback whales do not eat during the time spent in Hawaiian seas, spending the entire winter resting, mating and giving birth to a new generation.
Humpback whales sometimes blow "bubble nets" to help them feed. This is done when the whale dives down and then swims in a spiral while releasing air from the blowholes. Doing this creates bubbles which form a tubular net. The whale gets in the center of the bubble to eat the trapped prey. Several Humpbacks can come up through the bubble net at one time to feed.
At the time that hunting of the Humpbacks finally ceased in the 1960s, there were as few as 500 left in existence. The Humpbacks now boast a population of around 80,000 worldwide.
Humpbacks are also very vocal, Uttering a wide range of sounds from unmusical noises—grunts, glubs, rumbles, sneers, and whines—to "singing" a long series of repeated phrases." Whale songs, occurring primarily during the breeding season, are sung only by males, and their composition slowly changes as they are being sung, with all singers in a population singing the same version at any one time. Why Humpback whales sing remains unknown
Male Humpback whales emit a complex series of loud sounds over and over known as song. Singing is usually heard during the breeding season, but also occurs during migration and in late summer and fall feeding areas. Although likely heard by sailors for centuries, the first recordings of Humpback songs were made via U.S. Navy ships in the late 1950s off Hawaii and Bermuda.
Jim Darling of Maui's Whale Trust has been trying for 25 years to figure out the reasons for the Humpback whale song. These vocalizations, uttered only by males, are probably the longest and most elaborate known among animals Darling says. It has formal structure is built from a succession of themes, or melodies, with a striking range of tones, from piccolo chirrups to low-pitched foghorn blasts. Some scientists say they can detect rhymes.
These songs were generally thought to be for luring mates. But in 1997, when Darling, and fellow Whale Trust researcher Flip Nicklin discovered that singers in the 'Au'au Channel were attracting other males, not females.
Darling and the rest of the Whale Trust research confirms that females aren't attracted to the singing, but males are eager to investigate the sonic source. Maybe the song isn't for courting but for challenging another male, but when a new male joins a singer, Darling says, the two whales often just circle each other without any apparent aggression. They may even swim off together.
Darling says that all the Humpbacks within one region, the North Pacific, for example, sing the same song. And those Humpback populations in other parts of the world sing very different songs. The songs also change over time—from one year to the next, and even over a single breeding season.
Recently, researchers listening in on Humpbacks along northern feeding grounds have picked up singing during late autumn and again in spring and early summer. Navy hydrophones deployed on the sea bottom detect Humpbacks singing during their long migrations as well.