Humpback Whales 2017-05-18T22:19:29+00:00

Humpback Whales

In The Company of Whales – In the Wake of Giants; Life is a Breach – Then you Dive.

Official Oahu Humpback Whale Season, mid Dec. – April. The reviews are in, and the experts all agree that the 2014-2015 season will be an excellent year for humpback whale watching. Get the best humpback whale behavior onboard our Best of the West.

Hawaii, the beginning of life

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

Humpback whales (na kohola) are found in all oceans, although they generally prefer near shore and near-island habitats for both feeding and breeding. Since adult whales rarely feed in Hawaii, many of the behaviors below are specific to mating.

A large percentage of the North Pacific humpback whales migrate to the main Hawaiian islands during the winter months – November through May – each year. The round-trip distance they travel during this annual migration is approximately 4,000 miles, one of the longest migration distances of any animal species. During their stay in Hawaii, they do not feed, but rely upon stored energy. Near the islands, the whales devote most of their time to mating and giving birth to their calves. While visiting the islands, kohola have become renowned for their various acrobatic displays.

FEBRUARY IS HUMPBACK WHALE AWARENESS MONTH!

For more information about Humpback Whale Awareness Month Events and other upcoming sanctuary events such as NOAA’s annual Volunteer Whale Count.

  • Looking for a charter that does whale watching only? We can help setting you up with like-minded folks, we love those charters too!

Humpback Whale Behavior

Humpback whales are an endangered species. In the past, the global humpback whale population size was about 750,000 to 2 million animals (!). The current global population is about 30 to 40 thousand. With about 66% of the North Pacific population wintering in Hawaii each year, up to 10,000 humpback whales could come to Hawaii this winter.

Dolphins are family-based and highly social, but whales are anti-social. If you see two 40-foot-long grown whales together, usually one is a female and the other a male. If you see three, it’s usually two beaux vying for her attention.

Other cetaceans common to our area are 22 species of dolphins and other whales such as Pilot Whales.

whale head lunge and blow
whale tail blow

Blow (formerly known as “Spout”)

When a whale dives, air is compressed in its lungs. Upon reaching the surface, the air is exhaled through the whale’s blowholes. The exhaled air expands, causing the temperature to decrease, thereby condensing into water vapor. The blow is quite visible and can reach heights of 20 feet. In concert with the blow is the sound of rushing air that can be heard up to 800 feet away. The blow of a humpback whale is unique to each animal and a great way to distinguish between types of whales. On average, adult humpback whales take a breath every ten to fifteen minutes, but can remain submerged for as long as forty-five minutes. Calves must rise to the surface every three to five minutes to breathe.

whale

Round Out or Peduncle Arch

When preparing for a deep dive, humpbacks will arch (hump) their back and raise their tail flukes above water. It is this pronounced arching of the back that has earned the humpback whale its common name.

whale

Pec Slap

The humpback’s pectoral fin is longer than that of all other species of whales, measuring one-third the whale’s body length, or approximately twelve to fifteen feet. Humpbacks will often roll onto their side or back and slowly slap the water’s surface with one fin or both fins simultaneously. The slapping of fins may serve as a communication signal to other whales.

whale

Head Rise (aka Spyhop)

Some believe this behavior allows the humpback whale to get a better look at activity going on above the surface. A whale slowly rises vertically toward the surface, poking its head out of the water to below its eyes. Usually the whale is stationary and the flippers are outstretched beneath the surface. Occasionally whales will clear the water first with their flippers or tails, creating a circular window, from which they can more easily look through the surface of the water.

whale tail blow

Competitive Pods

Groups generally composed of males surrounding a female. The female frequently remains in the physical center of the group. The male closest to the female is termed the primary escort, and defends the position closest to her in the center of the group. Displays between males include visual displays (inflating ventral pleats, blowing bubbles), chases, and even physical strikes. Humpback whales in competitive pods may make sounds that are different from the long, complex, highly patterned and stereotyped “song.”

whale tail blow

Jaw Clap

The whale opens and closes its jaws, clapping them together, at times audibly! This behavior is common in competitive or surface-active groups when males are competing for a female. You can almost see the baleen on the whale to the right…

whale tail blow

Tail Slap

A tail slap consists of a whale raising its tail flukes out of water and slapping them forcefully on the surface of the water. When the flukes hit the water, a loud resonant noise can be heard for miles. Humpback whales are known to repeat this behavior over and over. This behavior may serve as a warning to others in the vicinity.

whale tail blow

Peduncle Slap (or Lobtail)

An aggressive display where the humpback whale will thrash the surface of the water by whipping its upraised flukes from side to side. Humpbacks will slap the surface of the water as a warning signal to others or bash other whales during aggressive competition.

whale tail blow

Head Lunge

The head lunge of the male whale is the equivalent of a dog baring its teeth at its opponent. The whale on the bottom is expelling water that it used to “puff up” its throat area and appear bigger .However the whale on the top is about to knock it out of him!

Head Slap Humpback Whale

Head Slap

Whale lunges or leaps partially out of the water, striking the underside of the chin forcefully on the surface of the water. Head slapping behavior often occurs after a breaching sequence and its meaning is unknown.

Breach

Breach

Everyone’s favorite! A powerful acrobatic display where the humpback uses its tail to launch itself out of the water. With just a few pumps of its tail, the humpback can propel its entire body into the air, landing back onto the surface with a resounding splash. The purpose of this spectacular behavior is still unknown. Some serves as a form of communication, or maybe just a form of playful activity for the humpback.

whale tongue flaps

Nursing

Humpback calfs do need to breath at some point, so can’t nestle in and suckle away like a puppy or kitten. Also, the calf’s “lips” aren’t flexible enough to form a suction around the mother’s nipple like other mammals. To do so, a baby whale curls its tongue. A good suction is assisted by interlocking flaps on either side of the tongue, as the mother ‘shoots’ the milk into and beyond the tongue.. As the baby whale gets older and is no longer suckling, the flaps will mostly disappea. Whale “lips” aren’t flexible enough to form a suction around the mother’s nipple like other mammals. To do so, a baby whale curls its tongue. A good suction is assisted by interlocking flaps on either side of the tongue – you can see these above (along with the white colored baby baleen). As the baby whale gets older and is no longer suckling, the flaps will mostly disappear. Cool, huh?

Click for more whale photos!

Whale Song

Humpbacks have a range that covers eight octaves, from a bass so low that humans can’t hear it to a magnificent soprano. Their highly structured songs include multiple themes that are constantly repeated and even rhyme.

The songs last up to 30 minutes, and the whales embellish like jazz musicians, seeing who can improvise in some attractive way better than the other whale. Whales sing to one another over hundreds of miles and use their songs to navigate across oceans. Humpback whales travel thousands of miles as a group, singing to each other as they go. They can also communicate with each other over thousands of miles of ocean. Singing is part of their social system and community.

Aside from navigation and attracting mates, singing is also believed to establish a hierarchy among male humpbacks. Singing breaks out among migrating whales as they start to mix and continues not just in their breeding grounds, but to attract mates even during the feeding season.

No living animals have captured our imaginations as have the great whales… They fire our imaginations and stab at our emotions. They inspire our art, literature, and music. And so they should. The indescribable blend of grace, power, and beauty of a whale as it glides underwater, leaps toward the sky, or simply lifts its flukes and slides into the sea symbolizes a vanishing poetry of the wild.

– Dr. James Darling, With The Whales

I’m not a very sentimental person. I don’t think we ought to save whales because they’re cuddly or pettable. But it’s simply an amazing experience having those whales roll over and look at you eye to eye. There’s really an interspecies contact there. There’s an intelligence…. That’s about as far as I want to go with that, but it’s… extraordinary.

– Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.