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Watching The Humpback Whales

The humpback whales with their haunting songs (which you can actually hear sometimes when you are snorkeling) and their truly amazing acrobatics come to Hawaii each winter from the cold waters of Alaska to give birth, raise their calves, and mate in the warm waters around the islands. Maui seems to be their favorite island, of course! Although the humpbacks can be observed from land, you’ll get a much better view of them from a boat, much more up close and personal! Here’s a description of the behaviors you may see... 


Usually the first indication that whales are nearby is by their blow, which is how the humpbacks exhale air. The vaporized water that they displace when exhaling shoots 20 to 25 feet up into the air! These blows can be seen quite some distance away. On average, the mature humpbacks come to the surface to breathe every 10 to 15 minutes, but they can remain underwater for as long as 45 minutes. When near the surface of the water, the whales will generally take 3 to 6 breaths before diving deeper into the water. The juveniles, called calves, need to rise to the surface every 3 to 5 minutes.


A whale breach is an acrobatic display where the humpback uses it tail flukes to launch itself out of the water, and then lands back onto the surface of the water, creating quite a splash! It’s amazing to see the young calves learning the breaching techniques from their mothers. They put on an adorable show! Have your video camera ready and impress your friends back home!

Tail Slap

Occasionally the mature humpback will raise its tail flukes out of the water and slap them forcefully on the surface of the water, resulting in a tremendous splash that can be heard both above and below water! This behavior is generally repetitive and is thought to serve as a warning.

Pectoral Slap

The whale will slap the surface of the water with either one or both fins at the same time. The humpback has the longest pectoral fins in ratio to their body size of all the whales. Research suggests that these fins help them maneuver underwater. While on the surface, the humpbacks will sometimes lay on their sides, lift their pectoral fins into the air and then slap them down on the water, creating a loud smack. It is thought that the slapping of their fins may serve some sort of communication signal to other whales nearby.

Head Rise or Spy Hop

This is truly a sight to behold. The whale will rise vertically up towards the surface, with its head almost completely out of the water. This maneuver allows the humpback to view activity happening above water and on the surface. 

Fluke-Up Dive

The fluke up dive is usually your signal that the whale is departing and diving deep. The humpback arches its massive tail flukes up into the air, which gently propels it into deeper water. Say “aloha” to them as they leave the area.


The humpback propels itself by moving its flukes up and down, unlike fish which move by propelling their fins from side to side. They steer by moving their pectoral fins and bending their body. Buoyancy adjustments by the movement of air within their body also help to control how they rise to the surface. While not known as being exceptionally fast swimmers they can get up to 20 miles an hour for short spurts. Generally they go about 3 to 8 miles an hour as they are migrating to and from Alaska to Hawaii. The humpbacks can dive to a depth of about 600 feet.

A Slick

When a humpback whale slips under the water it often leaves a smooth slick are on the surface of the water. These slicks are thought of as a whale’s footprint, which the Hawaiians call a “puka”. When you encounter one of these slicks, you’ll know that a whale was just very recently there and is now underwater nearby.


The most common pod size we see here in the islands is between 2 and 3 animals. The next most frequent sighting is that of a single whale, also called a “singleton”, which is usually a lone male. Sometimes pods of 4 to 8 whales will be encountered and, only rarely, pods of 20 or more. It is thought that the size of the pod has a lot to do with the activity of the whales, such as swimming, playing, weaning, courting, nursing, mating or fighting.


It has been discovered that it is only the lone male whales (the singletons) which are the singers. It may be that they are promoting their readiness to mate, trying to attract the females and to keep the competing other male whales away. Singers will stop singing if another whale or pod is approaching.


While you won’t see a whale giving birth from the boat, and not many people have ever seen a calving, it is believed that humpback whales are both conceived and born here in Hawaii. Gestation is from 10 to 12 months and towards the end of January, we start to see the newborn calves. The mothers and calves stay in relatively shallow, protected inshore area for the first week or so.

Escort Males

Once the mother humpback and her calf head further out to sea, they either join or are joined by another humpback whale, generally thought to be a male. The new whale now becomes an “escort”. The escort doesn’t stay with the mother and calf for more than a day, sometimes just a few hours or minutes. The escort’s behavior can vary quite a bit. Sometimes it will put itself between an approaching vessel and the mother and baby. Other times, the escort will just go away, not protecting either one.


Although we commonly refer to the humpback whale as a “gentle giant”, that nickname is not so apt during their courting and mating rituals. The male whales form competitive pods, chasing the mother whale to mate with her and fighting the other males off. The baby whale needs to be very attentive to stay out of the fray! During a competitive pod run, the humpbacks really put on the speed and churn up the water. It makes for quite a show!

Even More Cool Whale Facts

  • The Hawaiian term for whale is “kohala”.
  • Hawaii’s “Official State Mammal” is the humpback whale.
  • The humpback whale remains an endangered species, although it is estimated that about 10,000 of these gentle giants visit the Hawaiian Islands each year.
  • The main islands of Hawaii boast the largest seasonal population of North Pacific humpbacks of anywhere in the world and Maui is home to the bulk of that population.
  • Humpback whales migrate from the cool waters to warm waters in the winter to breed. The four major areas, in the world to make up their "winter breeding grounds" are the Hawaiian Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, the east coast of Africa (Senegal & Gambia coast or the Cape Verde Islands) and the Dominican Republic. Other winter migration destinations include; the Philippines, Taiwan, Northern Mariana Islands and the Ogasawara Islands (south of Japan).
  • Whales, dolphins and porpoises are all considered Cetaceans (originating from the Greek word “ketos”, meaning "sea monster").
  • Adult female humpbacks are actually larger than the adult males.
  • Mature humpbacks can weigh-in at over 40 tons and achieve lengths of 45 feet!
  • Humpback calves are between 10 and 16 feet long when they are born and newborns can weigh around 1½ tons. Now that's a big baby!
  • The gestation for pregnancy is about 10 to 12 months.
  • The size of a humpback’s eye is roughly the same size as a large orange.
  • Humans are able to identify whales by the markings on their tail fin (called the “fluke”).
  • The humpback’s flukes are between 10 and 15 feet wide.
  • Humpback whales can be seen, during the winter, off the coastal waters of the 6 main Hawaiian Islands. However, Maui is home to the major populations during this time.
  • If you look at the shape of Kaho‘olawe (the island just past Molokini off the coast of Maui), it looks like the profile of a half-submerged, sleeping humpback whale. Some people theorize that this may be one of the reasons the humpbacks are attracted to this area and why they mostly congregate within Maui's waters in sight of this island.
  • The area, off the coast of Maui – between the islands of Lanai, Kaho‘olawe and Molokini is designated as a National Marine Sanctuary for Humpback Whales.
  • During the winter-months no "thrill-craft" (Jet Skis, Parasail Boats, Etc.) are allowed to operate within the National Marine Sanctuary that extends from Kapalua to Kaanapal all the way to Wailea and Makena.