America has a fine tradition of whales’ tales. Our favorite is about Essex, a whaling ship that operated out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. On a whale-hunting foray into the southern Pacific Ocean, the 21-man crew found itself in troubled waters when it went after a pod of whales, provoking the ire of an abnormally large sperm whale, nearly as large as the 88-foot ship itself. In the end, the whale battered and sank the ship. The true tale ends with death and cannibalism at sea. It also inspired Herman Melville’s American masterpiece, Moby Dick.
But that was back in 1820. Today, visitors and whales get along just fine. Whaling’s heyday has passed and whales have made an incredible comeback, so much so that they are no longer on an endangered species list. Humpback whales come to Hawaii to spend their winters in peace. Naturally, these gentle giants fascinate humans and we want to get as close a look as possible. People also want to learn about the fascinating tales that surround these leviathans of the deep, who come from thousands of miles away for their annual visit.
Every year, starting in November, migrating humpback whales begin appearing in Hawaii’s waters, where they remain till the warmer summer months. It is estimated that more than 10,000 humpbacks and other species of whales come to the waters off the Hawaiian Islands to mate or give birth to calves conceived the previous year in our warm tropical seas.
Humpback whales spend their summers in the nutrient-rich Alaskan waters feeding on small fish and krill (shrimplike crustaceans) and they can consume up to a ton of food in just one day. But as winter approaches, the whales begin to slowly move south, with the largest influx reaching Hawaii between January and April.
Catching a glimpse of these creatures—the largest, most powerful mammals in existence—is indeed a memorable experience. The females, which generally grow larger than the males, can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds.
Offshore, breaching humpbacks can be spotted occasionally from the roadside, but oceangoing tours offer the best way to get a closer look at the whales. Federal laws regulate how close boats may get to whales, but these massive mammals are free to approach vessels at any distance they wish, which occasionally is quite close, sometimes directly under a boat. Even if your sighting isn’t quite this dramatic, whale-watching tours provide a unique opportunity to learn more about these awe-inspiring beings.
Photos by Pacific Whale Foundation; Lori and Richard Rothstein, courtesy of Paradise Adventure Cruises