Every year around early October, the very first humpback whales traveling thousands of miles from their feeding grounds in Alaska appear in Hawaiian waters. But the whale-watching season begins in earnest toward the end of the year and hits its peak January through March.
"The whales can be seen from October till May, and they don't all come at once," explained Stephanie Stack, senior research biologist for the Pacific Whale Foundation. "It's what they call a trickle migration, because they trickle in throughout the season instead of coming in one big wave."
The humpbacks winter in the warm waters off of Hawaii, where they mate, give birth and initially raise their calves. While the first humpback was spotted this year on Oct. 8, many of the whale-watching cruises don't start offering regular excursions until December.
Based on the latest large-scale population study, it is estimated that half of all North Pacific humpbacks make the journey to Hawaii each year, putting the total number of whales making the 6,000-mile roundtrip migration at around 11,000 annually. Over the past three years, the population of humpbacks recorded in moment-in-time surveys off the coast of Hawaii has decreased, and scientists are not quite sure why.
"There is a trend that researchers are noticing in both Hawaii and southeast Alaska: a decline in the number of humpback whales returning to those two areas," Stack said. "It's been occurring for three or four years, and some years there is a bigger decline than others, but we don't know what's causing that pattern. It's possible the height of season has shifted or they are congregating in areas we're not looking. It's possible it's not representative of an actual decline."
And while the researchers are exploring the reason for the decline and have expressed some concern, in historical context the whale population is considerably more robust than 35 years ago. In 1993 there were an estimated 6,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean, and 4,000 of those made the journey to Hawaii.
There are plenty of opportunities to spot whales from the water and on shore during the busiest part of the season, and amateur marine biologists can even participate in whale counts and other citizen scientist initiative if they plan their trip at the right time.
The Pacific Whale Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1980 with the mission of protecting the ocean and inspiring environmental stewardship through science and advocacy. The organization participates in scientific research, community and educational programs, and runs a for-profit tour wing that puts all proceeds back into the foundation.
"The founder of Pacific Whale Foundation, Greg Kaufman, passed away earlier this year, and his vision from the beginning was to educate people and bring them closer to the ocean to improve conservation, " said Kelly McHugh, the foundation's director of marketing and development. "You can talk all you want about conservation and treating the land and ocean with respect, but once you show people these creatures firsthand, and they get to have these magical moments and see these behaviors, it changes them dramatically."
Maui, where the foundation is based, happens to be one of the choice spots in Hawaii for whale-watching. More whales tend be seen in the Auau channel off Maui, which is shallower than other areas around the islands, and it's an ideal habitat for the baby humpbacks.
"You can see lots of whale behaviors; it all sort of depends on how they're feeling or doing on any given day," Stack said. "The surface activities are obviously the best for whale-watchers, like breaches, or tail or pectoral flaps, where they smack the water with their fins. Sometimes the whales spyhop, where they lift their heads out the water and you see their eyes. It's always special when you come eye to eye with a whale."
Additionally, since the whales give birth while wintering in Hawaii, it is common to see moms swimming with their offspring, teaching them the ways of the ocean.
"It's cool to see the calves because they are learning to do all the same behaviors, but they are a little more clumsy than mom as they are developing and practicing," Stack said.
Whale-watchers should keep a few things in mind for the safety of the marine mammals and themselves. After a four-year study of collisions and other hazards, the Pacific Whale Foundation determined the ideal speed for watercraft when in whale areas is 13 knots. Additionally, by law, all craft, including nonmotorized vehicles like kayaks, must stay 100 yards from the whales. It is allowed, however, to let the whale approach you or your vessel on its own terms. Watchers should avoid approaching whales from directly behind or right in front, Stack said, and should try and take up a position alongside and parallel to the whale toward the rear.
The foundation offers three main types of whale-watching tours through its for-profit arm Pacwhale Ecoadventures, an experiential cruise that includes stops at certain spots to get off the boat for snorkeling and other activities, celebratory cruises with cocktails and live music or a DJ, and a pure whale-watching tour where the main focus is to experience and observe the whales with experts on hand to offer photography tips. Naturalists with extensive knowledge of marine ecosystems and life join all of the excursions. Additionally, every Wednesday the foundation offers "Ultimate Whale Watch with Experts," where a member of the research team is on board and visitors can get a firsthand look at what kind of data is being collected and deeper insights on the whales and their behaviors.
Registration for the 2019 great whale count on Maui is now open, and February is the month with the most action at the foundation with the Maui Whale Festival, which includes an international film festival, a run/walk event, concert cruises and one of three annual whale counts.