I have recently returned to the Pacific Northwest from a month long trip to Hawaii. My trip to the beautiful islands was full of days on the beach, hikes to waterfalls, snorkeling in the warm water, and of course, looking for whales. There is a flux of people boarding planes in colder climates wearing winter boots, hats, and jackets to only then set foot in Honolulu, Lihue, or Kona and immediately start dripping with sweat. That is exactly what happened to me. This constant flow of travelers wanting to escape colder temperatures, briefly forget about real life concerns, swim in warm ocean waters, and drink Mai Tais, are the main reasons people venture to the most isolated chain of islands in the world. These reasons aren’t that different for why so many whales also make the multi-thousand mile trip to Hawaii, well, maybe all except for the Mai Tais.
North Pacific humpback whales embark on one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling from Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands for the winter months and back north for the summer months. Their impressive migration is close to 3,000 miles each way and takes around 100 days. Folks traveling to Hawaii for winter vacation have a similar trek, Minneapolis to Honolulu 3,960 miles, some longer travel times, Boston to Kahului 5,068 miles, and some shorter, Los Angeles to Lihue 2,622 miles. The energy demanding lifestyle is worth it in the end for humpback whales; they swim to Hawaii, spend around four weeks, and leave either with a 14 foot, 3,000 pound tag-a-long, or having helped produced a tag-a-long that comes out tail first and requires fifteen gallons of milk a day.
Hawaii is the birthing and mating grounds for North Pacific humpback whales. The population is thought to have around 25,000 individuals, with 60% making their annual winter migration to Hawaii. An estimated 60% of those traveling to Hawaii are specifically traveling to Maui. Mirroring some of the reasons humans travel to Maui, humpbacks like warm shallow water. The four islands that make up Maui County, Molokai’i, Lana’i, Maui, and Kaho’olawe, all use to be one big island, Maui Nui. This makes the water between the islands incredibly shallow in some places, with some areas only around 150-300 feet deep. It may seem deep for us, however, for a 45-foot animal, the west side of Maui is like a warm bath tub. These waters are also protected from predators. Humans travel to Hawaii to temporarily forget about real life problems, and the humpback whale’s main predators, orca whales, are very rarely seen in Hawaii. Hawaii is a great place to give birth to calves- warm, shallow and, for the most part, free of predator.
I had the opportunity to go whale watching while I was on Maui. During peak whale season you don’t have to go on a boat to go whale watching, you can see spouts from shore. The majestic acrobatic display of surface activities like breaching and tail slaps is mesmerizing. Mothers are teaching newborn calves how to be a humpback whale and watching these intimate mother-calf interactions can bring tears to your eyes. North Pacific humpback whales have one of the most successful recovery stories of any large cetacean. This species was heavily targeted by the whaling industry, depleting the population to an estimated 800 worldwide. With one of the biggest conservation stories in history, North Pacific humpback whales were recently removed from the endangered species list. It is thought their population is growing around 8% annually. This effort wasn’t done overnight. In 1992 the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was established, making it the first and only sanctuary in the United States for one marine mammal. There are guidelines for vessels operating within sanctuary boundaries, approach limits, speed reductions in peak season, and numerous current research projects. Hopefully some of these precautionary practices can be implemented in the Salish Sea to give more species a chance at a successful recovery story like that of the North Pacific humpback whale.
Another whale seen in Hawaii, of particular interest to the team at Deep Green Wilderness, is the North Pacific right whale. In 1996 off the coast of Maui, a right whale was seen with three humpback whales and engaging in social interactions. This whale remained in the area for seventeen days. In 1979, a whale research team from the University of Hawaii were conducting their annual humpback whale winter migration research and spotted two right whales. The two sightings were sixteen days apart and thought to be the same whale. The first sighting the whale was seen in a group of nine humpbacks and four bottlenose dolphins. The second sighting was the right whale and a humpback, both displaying surface activities and making contact using pectoral fins. These sightings were of particular interest because they could give researchers some insight regarding North Pacific right whales winter migration patterns. However, the sightings were over thirty years ago and we still don’t know where these whales spend the winter months.
It is inspiring to hear about such a successful recovery story of the North Pacific humpback whale, but it’s also nerve racking when wondering about the North Pacific right whale. Right whales were hunted in the early 1800s and their population decimated years before the industry started to target humpback whales. Right whales were protected as early as the 1930s, years before humpbacks were protected, yet right whales show no sign of recovery. This is deeply concerning. The researcher that spotted the right whale in the 1979 sighting reflects on the uncertainty of the future of North Pacific right whales by stating “no species of whale in the North Pacific has been brought closer to the edge of biological extinction”.
There are other species that call the Hawaiian Islands home that need help. Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This protection has increased the nesting population by 5% annually, however, there are still too many primary threats to lose focus on protection. Hawaii’s False Killer Whales were listed as endangered in 2012 and has declined by close to 50% since 1980. False Killer Wales are the most frequent species suffering from by-catch in longline fishing gear in Hawaii. The Hawaiian monk seal has also been on the endangered species list for many years. The population is thought to be around 1,400 and increasing at 3% annually for the last three years. The threats are still extremely concerning and of the three species of monk seals that use to float in the world’s water, only two species remain. Hopefully with the slight increase in population the last few years the number doesn’t drop to one species left.
Hawaii is a heavily visited paradise destination year-round. I ask that you do your research before stepping on that plane, boarding pass in hand. Each destination has it’s own conservation issues and by being aware of these actions, you can be a part of successful recovery story. Hawaii and Maui County are involved in numerous environment focused movements, such as reef safe sunscreen, banning single-use plastic, banning plastic bags, tobacco free parks and beaches, and banning captive cetaceans. By doing a little research before flying to paradise, you can help save some of these endangered animals.
To take care of and protect everything that makes up our world; the land, ocean, living beings, our cultures, and our communities.