Disclaimer: I am NOT video savvy and I can only hope the quality of these videos is half as beautiful and inspiring as the real life sightings were. Also, I have lost audio on my Sony A6500 (user error) which really stinks because the sounds emitted by the whales are so fun to hear. Anyway, I hope you enjoy these videos despite my amateur status.
Aboard Ticket to Ride, we were aware that in January humpback whales begin arriving in quantities following their annual migration route to Hawaii. We wanted to see these giants and all indications were that hanging out on Maui was the best place to insure plenty of sightings. So in mid January we left Oahu and sailed to Maui. We have been anchoring around Maui for over six weeks now and the thrill of seeing and hearing the humpback whales has not diminished!
Humpback whales are a subspecies of the baleen whale and one of the larger whales that has a streamlined body with pleated skin (scientific name for this body type is rorqual). The females grow larger than the males and can be 40 to 45 feet in length and weigh 25-35 tons!
Perhaps the most striking or recognizable feature of the humpback whale is their flippers which can be 15 feet long and are often stark white (or partially white) in contrast to their gray/black bodies. When the whales are close to us, it is easy to see the bright white of their pectoral fins under the clear Hawaiian water.
One day we spotted a few whales to starboard, with one breaching, and we were surprised by another whale that approached from our port side! TTR was drifting without engines and the big guy in the video above was so close we could easily see his white fin and the bubbles he left in his wake right in front of our bow! The protrusive bumps on the heads of humpback whales are also very recognizable. You can barely see them in this video.
Similar to a snowflake or a fingerprint, the tails of the humpbacks have unique markings which can be used to identify them individually! The photo below shows a few tales with unique fluke markings.
I didn’t know much about whales when we left Oahu to search them out near Maui, but I have read a bit now and the more I learn, the more interesting these mammals become.
Humpbacks are found near all continents and seem to migrate to specific locations every year, although occasionally a whale or two will migrate to a different area some years. In general:
-humpbacks that feed from Northern California to Vancouver Island in the summer will find breeding grounds in Mexican and Central American waters.
-those that feed from Vancouver Island to Alaska in summer are found in Hawaii in the winter, though some will migrate to Mexico.
-humpbacks that feed in the Bering Sea, along the western Aleutian Islands and along the Russian coast are likely to be found in the Asian breeding areas.
The whales in Maui travel about 2,700 miles from Alaska each way. That sounds like quite the distance but some whales travel as much as 5,000 miles to a breeding ground.
The females travel to Hawaii to give birth to their calves and the males follow the females in search of breeding. Humpbacks feast on krill and small fish in the summer but once they begin the migration, they do not eat again until they return to the north.
The female humpback whale has a gestation period of 11.5 months and they have live births. Once the calf is born, it nurses until they return to Alaska and it begins eating small fish and krill. This means that a female humpback stops eating when she begins the migration, she births her calf, nurses the calf until they return to the north and she does not eat during that whole period!
Only male humpback whales sing! The purpose of singing is not known but theories abound. Some say the whales sing to help with location/sonar. Others say the singing is a way of attracting females. But whatever the reason, whales from one area all sing the same song which lasts 10 to 20 minutes.
But guess what?! The song changes every season. So for all you whale listeners out there, the tune will change from one year to the next. We can even hear the whales while on board TTR. Every night when I prepare for bed, I can hear the whales through the hull of our boat!
Humpback whales are seen in many parts of Hawaii, but the channels between Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe have the largest number of whales.
Although humpbacks were hunted nearly to the point of extinction, their numbers have revived since the moratorium on whaling was put into effect. Rough estimates are that when whaling began in the early 1900’s, there were approximately 15,000 whales worldwide and by the time whaling stopped in the mid-1960s, only around 1,200 humpbacks still existed!
Two things happened to save these giant, graceful mammals. First, the whales became so difficult to find that the whalers turned to other species. Secondly, in 1966, after approximately 90% of the whale population had been eradicated, a moratorium was placed on whale hunting.
The IWC (International Whaling Commission) was created in1966 to educate people and raise awareness of whale endangerment. The IWC currently has 88 member countries around the world, though it does not have any enforcement power.
In the early 1970’s crude methods of estimating the number of humpbacks visiting Hawaii put their number at only a few hundred. A friend told us that at that time, during an eight hour whale watching tour, you were lucky to spot one or two whales.
In 2004-2006, a world wide survey estimated the humpback population at 20,000 with nearly half of those visiting the Hawaiian Islands during the breeding season. This is an encouraging recovery that gives hope for other endangered species!
I was surprised to learn that each whale only stays four to six weeks in Hawaii. So the whales I saw in mid-January will not be the same ones I see in March. The whales are continually changing as they cycle through the islands, then migrate back to their home feeding grounds.
The number of whales today must be huge because we can see them in the channel from our anchorage at all times of the day. In fact, sometimes they are very close, moving slowly through the anchorage!
Whales within the anchorage are usually a mom and young calf. The females appear to seek out shallow water where they can rest with their calves and perhaps find protection from predators or persistent males who want to breed. Just the other day we heard an exhale and saw a puff of breath from a twosome between us and another boat anchored near us!
Young calves need to surface more often than the mothers who can stay beneath the water for 10 to 20 minutes. As seen in the video below, a calf will surface, swim in circles and take three or four breaths before returning to the mother.
Females usually give birth every other year, thus having a rest year, though some will reproduce every year.
My research tells me that females do not mingle with other females while in Hawaii and they keep their young separated. However, the females do interact when in their feeding grounds.
Humpback whales who travel to Hawaii have very different agendas. The females are focusing on giving birth or reproduction. However, the females seem to be interested in quality and will seek the whales they deem the strongest and most healthy.
Male humpback whales, have traveled thousands of miles to the breeding ground and have only reproduction on their brain. Researchers believe the males are all about quantity and will breed any available females.
Although the whole population of humpbacks is about 50/50 male to female, in breeding areas like Hawaii, there is a 2.5 or 3 to one ratio of males to females. This is true because not all females migrate every year.
Often several males are seen together following or searching for a female. A group of males chasing a female is called a ‘heat run.’ The males in a heat run are often very active on the surface of the water and can be seen vying for the attention of the female.
We happened to come across a heat run and caught it on videos. The video above shows what the heat run looked like from the bows of TTR.
Fortunately, Frank was able to launch the drone and he caught this amazing footage of a pod of 20+ whales. The largest one, toward the front is a female. Here is a video of the same group of whales taken from above.
Heat runs can last for hours as the males chase the female. The males inflate their bodies to appear larger, expel streams of bubbles and push each other around in an effort to secure the female’s interest.
The recovery of whales is truly encouraging and witnesses that with effort, endangered species can recover. Through education and conscious decision making, we can be better stewards of this Earth and the animals that inhabit it.
This post is full of videos, which I try to avoid because they require so much internet! But, the beauty of these whales is unique and hard to capture so I wanted to share some videos in an effort to more accurately reflect our experiences. Hopefully you have much better access to wifi than I do and this doesn’t take too long to load.
Thanks for stopping by to read our blog post. We hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the humpback whales in Hawaii. We are so fortunate to see them! Please turn to our Instagram or Facebook pages to hear from us more often.
Like most people, our travels and interactions have been severely limited by COVID, and often we are just hanging out and doing routine activities like working out, maintaining Ticket to Ride and eating at home. But Frank and I wanted to make a trip from Oahu to Maui to see the whales that migrate there every year.
We have some college friends who live in Hawaii and they expressed a definite desire to sail with us, so we invited them to join us on our little jaunt.
Inter-island travel in Hawaii requires COVID-19 testing, so we found an accepted location and scheduled our first ever Coronavirus test to coincide with completion of provisioning and a good weather window. Happily the test wasn’t terrible and the results were negative!
Gloria, Dave, Frank and I set out to make a leisurely trip to Maui with a few stops along the way, assuming the weather predictions were accurate. The tentative plan was to stop first on the southwest side of Molokai in Lono Harbor for a night or two, next visit Needles or Shark Fin on Lanai depending on swell and wind. After Lanai we would explore a few spots on Maui and if the weather presented, we would take a day trip to Molokini.
We set off from Kaneohe Bay with one reef in the main sail plus the genoa. The wind was mild even though the channel between Oahu and Molokai (Ka’iwi Channel) can be quite sporty. It was a casual sail of 51nm and we arrived at Lono Harbor in late afternoon.
Lono is a man made harbor with a narrow opening that can close out if the waves build, so we were careful to choose a weather window that promised small swells for an easy entrance and exit. In the picture below, notice how flat the water is in the harbor and the entrance.
Although Molokai is referred to as The Friendly Island, we have heard that, especially during COVID, the locals want nothing to do with visitors to their island. We saw several individuals and a family fishing from the shore at Lono Harbor and we cheered for them from the boat whenever they landed a fish. There was plenty of waving and smiles and no feelings of ill will.
We were quite surprised to see this fellow swim from shore to the rocky pier at dusk. We aren’t sure what caused his flight but we heard a dog barking and thought perhaps the dog chased the deer into the water.
Sunset was an array of vivid colors that we enjoyed while sipping cocktails. We relished the quiet of nature that wreathed this harbor.
During the night Frank and I awakened to much greater motion on the boat, but attributed it to increased wind. However, in the morning, the harbor entrance had a little surprise for us….. the swell forecast must have been wrong or incorrectly timed because we had waves that were 8 to 10 feet instead of the 2-3 predicted. The entrance was by no means closed out, but we needed to time our exit carefully and we wanted to leave sooner than later before the anchorage became uncomfortable.
After studying the waves for quite a while, preparing TTR as if she were a monohull, and putting on lifejackets, we upped anchor and waited for a break in the waves to motor quickly out of the harbor.
Thankfully our timing worked well and our exit was uneventful. Frank and I were a bit too busy to get any pictures, but Dave caught some of the excitement on film. Though, as usual, film doesn’t capture the complete feeling.
Sailing from Lono to Lanai was easy enough and included a variety of wind but the sea state was mild. I think the shallow entrance at Lono significantly increased the swell at the entrance because the swell away from the shallows was insignificant.
Winter in Hawaii means the winds can come from any direction and as we moved toward Lanai, we were doubtful that either Needles or Shark Fin would be tenable for an overnight stay.
As we neared Needles, we knew conditions would prevent us from staying overnight, but we enjoyed seeing the unique rock formations. From a distance, the Needles blend with the black rock of the shore behind them, but up close the rock formations define themselves. Originally there were five spires, but today only three remain. Two are stubby protrusions of black rock but one looks like a large, tall tree stump with dormant grass on top.
Although it was a long shot, we sailed over to Shark Fin to see if somehow we could grab a mooring ball there to stay overnight. Once again the swell and wind were not in our favor so we pointed our bows toward Olowalu on Maui.
Olowalu has bunches of coral heads that are fun to snorkel. We don’t ever want to damage coral, so we hooked up to a mooring ball and enjoyed the steady breezes that flow between the mountains into the anchorage.
The next morning we awakened early, prepared coffee and breakfast burritos. Then we launched our dinghy, Day Tripper, and motored into the channel for breakfast in the dinghy while searching for whales. We saw many whales and had one incredible encounter. We turned off the engine and were floating near two or three kayaks when we spotted a whale and baby heading our way. Turns out it was four whales and soon they swam inside the loose circle we created with the kayaks. The whales came much closer than expected but we never felt threatened. Up close it is amazing how gently and gracefully these whales moved through us. Though we have seen some breaching that I wouldn’t want to be near!
We spent the remainder of the day in and out of the water, spying on the fish and looking at the coral.
Next we decided to find a mooring ball in a little spot called Coral Guardens. We had never been there, but we knew there were mooring balls and we wanted to explore the coral there. Since Coral Gardens is so close to Olowalu, we motored over and hooked up in less than an hour. After scouting the swing room from the mooring ball, we decided TTR would be safe there overnight and once again we spent the day relaxing and getting in and out of the water to look at the marine life. It was great to be back on Maui where the water was clear and warm enough for us to swim!
Fortuitously we had an excellent weather window to sail to Molokini, a small crescent shaped island about 10 miles southeast of Olowalu. Molokini is a favorite stop for day cruise boats but it is often too windy to stay there in the afternoons when the winds kick up. We had a pleasant sail to Molokini then spent most of a day tied to a mooring ball.
We snorkeled along the interior of the crescent and saw a nice variety of fish. Then we enjoyed lunch on the front of TTR and watched others snorkel the path we had already taken. It was a really nice change to see day cruises in operation and visitors enjoying the delights of Hawaii. Though the day charter boats are not carrying full capacity, they are making a go of things and showing a few visitors the beauty of Hawaii.
About 3 pm we released the mooring ball and had a truly delightful sail to Mala Wharf on Maui. Of these five days of sailing, this one was the best one. The winds were consistently 12-15 knots at a 120 degree true wind angle. We enjoyed champagne sailing at 8-10 knots as we moved along and searched for whales. We spotted many whale spouts as we sailed but we didn’t get close to any of them.
It was fun just to see the whales surface and watch the clouds created by their exhales.
Bouncy weather was predicted so we dropped anchor near Mala Wharf and enjoyed a final dinner with Dave and Gloria aboard TTR.
The forecast showed we were in for a day of rain and wind, so we dropped our friends off early, spent a quiet, rainy day on Ticket to Ride and planned our next move to Honolua Bay, just a few miles up the Maui coast.
****Special thanks to Dave and Gloria for allowing me to use some of their photos!
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