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Islanders enjoy whale watching

by Shelly Awaya, Lifestyles editor

It’s a nice winter day in Hawai‘i, and you are on the beach checking out the horizon. Without warning, a huge humpback whale launches itself out of the water, arches its back with outstretched fins, and creates an enormous and loud white splash as it crashes back into the ocean, leaving behind a lingering salty mist. All of this happens in a matter of seconds, and you didn’t have a camera to capture that breathtaking moment.
 

Hawai‘i’s beaches are known worldwide for winter’s awesome waves and astonishing surf tournaments. People come from around the globe to see these. Hawai‘i’s whales are another reason to flock to Hawai‘i beaches.

From November through April, humpback whales can be seen swimming along all of Hawai‘i’s shores, but especially between the islands of Maui and Lana‘i.

Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, are annual visitors to the Hawaiian Islands. The warm, shallow waters surrounding Hawai‘i’s islands are a perfect place for the whales to breed, calve, and nurse their young before returning north to Alaska in the spring.

These enormous mammals, some as heavy as 40 tons and as long as five-story buildings, swim nearly 3,500 miles every year to complete this important part of their life cycle.

The whales are a protected species that were almost driven to extinction during the whaling boom of the 19th century, when humpbacks were killed for baleen and oil. In 1997, Congress established the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to ensure their survival.

Seeing humpback whales up close wows people of every age. Their size, up to 45 feet for males and slightly longer for females, combined with their agility, allows them to dive deep and hurl themselves out of the water in a spectacular sight known as breaching, which researchers say is a form of communicating with other whales and helps rid the whale’s body of parasites.

Humpback whales also do tail and fin (pectoral) slaps and other movements that display these creatures’ strength and grace.

Because of the shallow waters between the three islands of Maui County, Maui is the hot spot during whale watching season, and many Maui companies specialize in humpback whale sighting boat tours. Tours range in price from about $20 to $50 for adults and $15 to $30 for children.

At the beginning of the tour, a naturalist gives customers background information on humpback whales and why these mammals come to Hawai‘i year after year. Most tours last for two hours, and during that time you can take pictures of the whales as they poke their heads out of the water, swim by with a calf, or even come up for air and release a geyser-like spray of vapor from their blowholes, some as high as 20 feet.

If you haven’t been to Maui before, or if it’s been a while since you’ve gone island hopping, this is a great opportunity to learn something new and enjoy the ocean from a different perspective. For more information on where you can go to see the whales, or to visit an education center that specializes in humpback whale details, contact the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Maui headquarters at (808) 879-2818 or toll-free at (800) 831-4888. You can also visit their Web site at www.hihwnms.nos.noaa.gov.

 

 

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