Humpbacks, in growing numbers, return to Hawaii

A group spots a humpback whale off the bow of their whale-watching vessel.
A group spots a humpback whale off the bow of their whale-watching vessel. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Whale-watching season is now open in Hawaii as more humpback whales are making there way to the area for annual breeding, and boats that operate around the islands have been reporting sightings of whales since October.

It is the first Hawaii whale-watching season since the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration delisted the majority of humpback whales from the endangered list in September. There are 14 humpback population groups across the globe: as of now one group is threatened, four are endangered and the remainder are not listed. Although many of the protections for the animals will remain in place under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the redesignation marks an important milestone in the recovery of the species.

It "is a true ecological success story," Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries said at the time of the announcement. "Whales, including the humpback, serve an important role in our marine environment. Separately managing humpback whale populations that are largely independent of each other allows us to tailor conservation approaches for each population."

Hawaii's humpback season begins with infrequent sightings in late October and into November. The numbers then gradually increase during December, before getting into full swing in the first few months of the new year. The typical whale-watching season wraps up by May.

The Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit organization that tracks marine mammals and offers whale watching tours out of Maui, announced their first humpback sighting of the year on Oct. 20.

"The whales do not arrive en masse," said Greg Kaufman, founder and executive director of Pacific Whale Foundation. "This first sighting is the vanguard of humpbacks that will arrive in increasing numbers from now until they peak in February and March, when all the calves have been born."

NOAA scientists estimate more than 12,000 humpback whales have visited the Hawaiian Islands in recent seasons, and the numbers increase each winter. They make the trip to the Hawaiian Islands from their summer feeding grounds that extend from Northern California to the Bering Sea. Once in the relatively warm waters around Hawaii, they mate, give birth and care for their young calves before heading northeast for the summer.

Whale-watching opportunities abound during the height of the season, and there are numerous providers on the different islands. In addition to humpback whales, tours often encounter pods of dolphins, sea turtles and other species of whales. Naturalists lead the group, taking questions and providing in-depth knowledge on the marine creatures. Many of the tours offer food and other activities, and most guarantee a whale sighting or your next trip is free.

Here are a few of the operators offering whale-watching tours on different islands:

Star of Honolulu, Oahu
Wild Side, Oahu 
Atlantis Navatek Cruises, Oahu
Pacific Whale Foundation, Maui 
Capt. Andy's Sailing, Kauai 
Body Glove Cruises, Hawaii Island

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