This is a post that I have been waiting ever-so-impatiently to write. Why? Because, if you hadn’t already gathered, it’s a post about whales. And whales are quite possibly the most magnificent and intriguing creatures in the entire world…in my mind, at least. My fascination began a couple years ago when I saw a picture of whales sleeping in a circle, vertical in the water — heads up (toward the sky,) tails down (toward the sand) and discovered that they only shut off half of their brains while they sleep (they breathe voluntarily, so need a portion of “brain power” to remain awake at all times to keep them breathing.)
Then I learned that around 2,000 whales spend the winter months in the warm, tranquil waters around the Hawaiian Islands — particularly Maui — and… well, now I live on Maui, too. I spent a lot of time whale-observing from shore my first couple months in Hawaii, watching the mothers and calves frolicking offshore, breaching and tail-slapping and stunning with their massive size — even from such a distance away. But I wanted to get closer. And then summer came, the whales moved on, and I had to wait seven months before I could have a chance for a better view.
The first whales of this current season arrived home to Maui in early October, around the same time that I was making Maui my home, which seemed extraordinarily serendipitous. But because “peak” whale season doesn’t begin until mid/late December, I kept waiting. And then, last week, I was packing up to leave the island for a month and I couldn’t wait anymore. It was the morning after a heavy storm, and once we left the harbor the wind was blowing 40-50 mph. It was a roller-coaster boat ride, but there were whales.
When I moved to Oahu a year ago and saw that first breach, I spent the following weeks researching and watching every whale documentary I could find. And truly, magnificent is hardly large enough of a word to do them justice.
A few facts to catch you up:
- The whales that winter in Hawaii are Humpbacks, and they make the long, 5,000 mile roundtrip trek annually from the arctic waters around Alaska.
- Adult humpbacks reach an average length of 48-62 foot (to put it in perspective — that’s a bit longer than a city bus.)
- They weigh 40 tons (79,000 pounds)…the heart alone weighs around 430 pounds. This would be why it’s not very complementary to call someone a “whale.”
- Calves are approximately half the length of the mother’s head when they are born — a puny 20 feet and two tons. They are nursed for a year, and reach adult size at ten years of age. Humpback whales live approximately 45-50 years.
- Whale milk is 50% fat and pink-colored. When calves feed, each “squirt” of milk is 13 gallons (that’s a serious milk flood.) Calves drink 100 pounds of milk per day, which leads to 200 pounds of weight gain per day.
- Whales feed during the summer, in polar waters, and then migrate to warmer waters in the winter months to breed and have their babies. They fast during this time, living off of their fat reserves until they head back to their summer feeding grounds. During their feeding months, they eat an average of 5,500 pounds of small fish and plankton each day.
- Their tongues are about the size of a VW bug… however, the opening at the back of their throat is just a little larger than an orange, which is why they eat only small fish and crustaceans.
- Their black and white tail fin is approximately 1/3 the length of their body, and each whale’s pectoral fins have unique markings and patterns that identify it from other whales.
- A humpback whale “blow” releases an eruption of water that can reach 20 feet high
- Whales don’t have vocal chords, so they “sing” through their nasal passages (similar to humming.) Only the males sing, and only during the winter “breeding” months, so it is thought to be a mating ritual. The Humpback whale’s song is elaborate, haunting, and detailed, with complex verses and choruses and a length of around 20 minutes. They sing the song repeatedly, often for hours on end.
- Humpback whales use their massive, 12-foot wide tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and also to leap (breech) completely out of the water. Scientists aren’t sure why they breech — whether the impressive feat has a purpose (such as to clean themselves) or is just for fun. (I obviously think they do it just for fun.)
- They typically come up for air every 7-20 minutes, and with approximately 2000 whales spending their winters around Maui, that makes for heaps of whale activity to be seen!
- They’ve been known to cause traffic accidents along Maui’s coastline roads — seeing a whale breach for the first time can, apparently, make you forget you’re driving a car.
The Humpback Whales are just one of the many things that make Maui the most Magical place I’ve ever discovered, and if you happen to find yourself in the islands during the months when the Whales are home (Dec-April,) take time to watch for them, appreciate them, and, if possible, encounter them up close.
How YOU Can Meet the Hawaiian Humpbacks
Although there are numerous companies offering whale watching tours on Maui, I recommend Pacific Whale Foundation because all profits go to fund conservation and education efforts for whales, dolphins, and other marine life around the world. Tours leave from either Lahaina Harbor or Ma’alaea Harbor on Maui’s west side, and offer beautiful views of the coastline, as well as up-close encounters with the whales themselves.
Curious how close you’ll get?
Boaters are required by law to keep at least 100 yards away from the whales. However. The whales don’t always follow that rule, as you can see below. Whether or not they’ll actually touch your boat (as this curious little baby Humpback did) depends, I s’pose, on luck and how much they want to meet you.