HUMBACK WHALES of Maui (Megaptera Novaeangliae)

Humpback Whales are protected in Hawaii by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the
Endangered Species Act.  The whale population is increasing at about 7% per year thanks to
protective measures, however they have not yet recovered to their original population levels
and remain an endangered species.  Federal protects humpbacks from being harmed or
harassed.  Approaching by means of Kayaks to ferries within 100 yards (300 feet) is
888 256-9840 (NOAA Fisheries Enforcement)

Why Maui?
North Pacific Humpback Whales seem to choose the Maui area for a number of reasons:

1. Water Temperature
The new calves are born without a protective blubber layer so they need the warm water to survive. Since
Hawaiian water temperatures average around 75 degrees. This creates a more suitable environment for the
newborn calves.

2. Topography
Maui's unique topography is another reason why the humpback whales spend their winters here, the islands
shelter and protect the waters.  As the islands are in such close proximity, they form a shallow basin at the
bottom as compared to the deep surrounding Pacific Ocean waters at 1 to 3 miles depths.  The average depth
in the area off Lahaina is only about 300 feet.  For humans, 300 feet is considered well beyond our safe diving
range, but for a 45 foot humpback whale, 300 feet is just right. Humpbacks seem to prefer "shallow/protected"
waters and spend the majority of their lives in waters that are 300 feet or less.

3. Lack of Predators
Another reason to come to Maui is that Hawaiian waters are virtually predator free for the humpback whales.
Humpback whales have very few natural predators. There are a few species of sharks that will feed on the
sick, the injured, and the young. Their only other predators, besides humans, are orcas, the killer whale. In
Hawaii, we rarely see orcas as they prefer colder waters. The humpbacks encounter orcas on a regular basis
in Alaska, and as such, around 20% of humpback whales bear scars from orca attacks.

Where is the best place and time to see the whales?
This is always a hit and miss proposition. The first whales begin to arrive as early as the end of November
and stay until as late as May.  The best viewing time is mid-December to mid-March. The whales can be
sighted from any vantage point where you can see the water. The higher up and the closer you are, the better
chances you have. The whale watch cruise operators stay in touch with each other via CB radio relating where
the whales have been spotted, patience has its rewards, so keep a watchful eye for that “water vapor” rising
up from the water. That is a whale's “blow”'.

How large are the whales and what do they weigh?
Humpback Whales weigh approximately 1 ton (2000 pounds) for every foot of length. Adult males reach a
length of 40 feet and weigh in at 40 tons.

How do researchers identify one whale from another?
Humpback Whales can be identified by the markings and shape of their tails. These indentifying markings are
as individual as our fingerprints. Researchers take pictures of all whales sighted and catalog the pictures in
large albums. Each year they compare the new pictures to the ones previously catalog. They then can tell
which whales are returning to Maui each year. One year they had sighted a specific whale in Baja California
and then three weeks later the same whale was sighted in the waters around Maui. It was something that they
had not expected.

What is "Tail Slapping"?
This is when a whale will hit the surface of the water with its tail in a slapping motion. It is not quite known why
they do this. Researchers have speculated that it is used by the males to either attract females or it is an
aggressive posture to ward off other males.

What is "Breaching" ?
This is when the whale lifts almost its entire body out of the water. It will turn its body while in the air so that it
will land on its back. Researchers speculate that they breach to remove parasites such as barnacles from
their bodies. Other theories are that they want to take a look around, they are just being playful, or that they are
trying to attract the attention of other whales.

What is "Fluke Slapping" ?
This is when the whale will raise one of its two flukes and slap it against the surface of the water.
Researchers believe this is another aggressive posture toward other whales. It is also believed to be a
method that the female whale uses to stress or enforce a lesson to her calf.

What is "Spy Hopping" ?
This is when the whale will poke its head out of the water vertically just far enough for his eyes to break the
surface. Researchers believe they do this to look around to either see who or what is around or to get their

How many whales visit the Maui waters?
Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 humpback whales visit the waters around Maui each year.

What do the whales eat while they are in Maui?
The whales do not eat while they are here. They live off their thick coat of blubber. They only feed in the polar
waters near Alaska during the summer and fall months. They are baleen whales. They feed only on small
shrimp-like critters called krill which are abundant in the polar waters.

How do they eat?
The humpback will dive down deep under a large swarm of krill. It will begin a slow circular motion while
blowing bubbles out of its blowhole. The rising bubbles corral the krill. The whale will then open its mouth fully
and swim up through the center of the circle of bubbles it created scooping up the corraled krill. It will continue
its upward movement until it breaks the surface of the water. The water will then flow out through the baleen
but leaving the krill trapped in the whale’s mouth. The whale ends up with a feast.

How much weight do the calves gain each day?
The female will nurse her calve to gain 200 pounds a day during the first few weeks of life.

How close can I get to the whales?
In 1992 the official Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary came into being. Under
this Act, it is unlawful for anyone, without special permission, to come within 300 yards of the humpbacks in
the known calving areas and 100 yards in all other areas.

How often do whales breathe?
Humpbacks need to breathe every 7 to 20 minutes.

What kind of binoculars are good for whale watching?
10x40 wide angle lens work very well.

Which gender of the Humpback Whale does the singing?
The male whale is the only one that sings.
Viewing Spots:
The beaches and ocean front
dining rooms of South and West
Maui are prime spots, and the
drive along Maalaea and West
Maui is peppered with scenic pull-
offs.  These are among the best:
  • Maalaea Harbor
  • Papawai Lookout
  • Launiupoko Wayside
  • Kaanapali  Beach
  • Puu Kekaa (Black Rock)
  • Honolua Bay

Watch for distracted
drivers who may
suddenly stop to view

Marine Debris is the
leading killer of whales and
all marine mammals.  Nets,
lines, buoys and trash can
tangle or be swallowed.  
Pick up beach trash.

Photography Tips:
  • Hold camera steady.
  • Do not follow the whale
    through its movements.
  • Set shutter speed to 5
    hundredth of a second.

Whale Behaviors:
  • BLOW:  When a whale
    exhales at the surface a
    bushy cloud of water vapor
    is produced
    whale dives, it may arch its
    body high above the
    water, so that the caudal
    peduncle appears.
  • FLUKE UP DIVE:  Following
    a peduncle arch, the
    humpback will bring it tail
    fluke above the surface of
    the water so that the
    entire underneath surface
    fluke is exposed
  • PEC SLAP:  The whale rolls
    sideways at the surface,
    slapping a pectoral din
    against the water.  Some-
    times whales lay on their
    backs and slap both fins
  • BREACH:  The whale
    propels itself out of the
    water, clearing the surface
    with 2/3 of its body or
  • SPY HOP:  The whale rises
    his head straight up out of
    the water to just below
    the eyes.
  • HEAD SLAP:  Lunging head
    first out of the water the
    whale pounds its massive
    mouth on the surface.
  • TAIL SLAP:  The forceful
    slapping of the tail flukes
    against the surface of the