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Humpback Whale

Maui Ocean Center is respectfully in compliance with a County of Maui ordinance prohibiting the exhibit of cetaceans (marine mammals including whales, dolphins and monk seals). Learn about these animals through interpretive displays in the Humpbacks of Hawaii Exhibit, naturalist presentations and volunteers of organizations from the Maui community.

Every year, the humpback whales visit the Hawaiian Islands during the winter months of November-March. Typically not feeding during their time here, they’ve journeyed down to mate and give birth to their calf. The trip they embark on every year from Alaska to Hawaii is approximately 3,000 miles, by far one of the largest journeys taken by any animal species.

Roughly 10,000 whales make their journey from the North Pacific to the warm waters of the Hawaiian Islands. The Humpback whale is an endangered species and overall populations drastically declined before it was put on the endangered list. An increase in the population has been documented, yet difficult to estimate an exact count of this species.

Humpback whales can weigh between 25-40 tons reaching up to 45 feet in length; females tend to be larger than males. Mostly all dark grey, some individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly. These distinctive characteristics are in many instances used to identify individual whales. During the summer months, feeding occurs in the North Pacific where whales build up fat stores or blubber that they will live off of during the winter. Humpback whales filter feed on tiny crustaceans, mainly krill as well as small fish and can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food per day. Adults have been documented to be able to hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, where calves surface for air every few minutes.

During the winter months, mating is frequently observed in the Hawaiian Islands. Humpbacks are generally polygynous and competitive and aggressive behavior is observed by males on the wintering grounds. Behaviors include chasing, vocal and bubble displays, horizontal tail thrashing and rear body thrashing. Males also sing complex songs that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard from miles away. Whale singing has been studied for decades but the specific function is not yet understood.

Gestation for females last about 11 months and the newborns are anywhere from 13-16 feet long. Due to the nutritious milk the mother provides, calves then to grow quickly. Weaning occurs between 6-10 months after birth. A common scene here in the Hawaiian Islands is that of a mother being quite protective of her calf and frequently swim close. Beautiful aerial displays are also commonly seen, especially by calves.

Although humpbacks are making a healthy recovery, there are still challenges and threats affecting this species. In 1997, the US and Hawaii governments designated the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Its purpose was to protect humpback whales and their habitat within the sanctuary as well as raise awareness and educate about the importance of these animals.

To Hawaiians, the whale is a representation of the Hawaiian god, Kanaloa- the god of animals in the ocean.

Reference: NOAA

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