A Humpback Whale of a Tale in Hawai‘i

Humpback whale breach

Whales, known as Koholā in Hawaiian, are the largest mammals on earth…and among the most magnificent.  Seeing a humpback whale; a mother and her young; or even a pod or group, is a special sight in the islands. I’ve been humbled to witness these gentle giants in action on more than a few occasions here.

Humpback whales make Hawai‘i home for several months out of the year, and their migratory patterns are fascinating!  Their feeding grounds are in the cold, deep waters of Alaska, but each year, they fill up on food (typically around 1.5 tons of krill, plankton and small fish, according to alaska.com) and head here to paradise!  

The Path to Paradise

Humpback whale tail at sunset on Maui

Humpback whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet!  The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reports that every year, around 10,000 humpback whales make the journey, which spans close to 3,000 miles each way and can take up to two months. 

In the warm, relatively shallow waters of Hawai‘i, the whales breed, give birth and nurse their young.  It’s such a gift to get to see moms and their keiki together, as she teaches, cares for and protects her young.  

There seems to be playtime too, as they slap their tails and fins on the surface of the water, “spy hop” (poke their heads up) and even propel out of the water in full breach mode!  I’ve been fortunate to capture some of these incredible moments on camera on trips with the experts at Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF).

Protecting the Ocean Together

Humpback whale fin

I connected with this nonprofit many years ago through one of my restaurants, Three’s Bar & Grill, which provides catering on the PWF cruises.  As a lifelong surfer with a passion for the water and marine life, I immediately aligned with their mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy.  

With experienced naturalists as a primary part of the crew, they aim to foster awareness, cultural respect and a greater understanding of sustainability in every person who comes on board for a whale watch, snorkel trip or sunset cruise.  To express my support for all that they do, this year I’m creating a limited-edition photo series of Hawai’i-inspired captures, with 100% of the proceeds donated to PWF.  Each quarter, I’ll release three photos with only 10 prints each, and once those are sold, they’ll be retired forever. So these will be very special collections!  Along with my website, you can also find some of my prints available in their shops.  

Humpback Whale History

Humpback whale tail close up

They understand the significance of the humpback whale, but do you?  The koholā was well-known to the early Hawaiians, considered a majestic manifestation of Kanaloa, the god of the ocean.  According to NOAA, the Kumulipo chant of creation even mentions the whale, said to have played a role in helping the Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands.

Whales were once heavily hunted for their blubber, used to make oil for lamps and other products.  As NOAA explains, ”before a final moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985, all populations of humpback whales were greatly reduced, most by more than 95 percent.”

But in 1973, the humpback whale was officially listed under the Endangered Species Act, and that protection seems to have made a difference.  We see an abundance of humpbacks here in Hawai‘i, particularly through the ‘Alalakeiki Channel between Maui and Kaho`olawe. 

Don’t Miss this Magnificence!

Humpback whale breach off the coast of Maui

Whales begin to start cruising in around early October and can stick around until May, however the peak season for humpback whales in Hawai‘i is between December and March.  That’s when the largest number of whales are here, and you can sometimes even hear their whale songs and communication if you get quiet underwater!  If you haven’t spent time around these incredible creatures, I’d highly recommend a whale watch on Maui.  

And speaking of the ocean, giant SURF was the order of the day back in January 2023 when the Eddie Aikau Invitational got the green light.  And I got to be there for the tournament, overlooking Waimea Bay on O‘ahu’s North Store – learn about the unforgettable experience in my blog, Getting to GO: The Eddie Aikau Surf Contest