Humpback Whales

Every December we eagerly await the arrival of the Humpback Whales to the Big Island.
The whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands for their mating. They stay in Hawaii until April. Humpbacks are truly intelligent animals who make the longest migration of any mammal.
Their presence along the Kona coast makes each charter trip on the ocean a possibility to see something amazing.  You never know how inquisitive they might be, or what aerial display they may have in store for us.  They are awe-inspiring and majestic and we are very blessed to witness part of their life on a daily basis through out the whale season.

Humpback Whales frequent the warm Hawaiian waters in the winter months (December-April).  Almost all of the Humpback whale behavior seen in Hawaii is related to mating or giving birth.   As a general rule, adult Humpback Whales will not feed while they are in Hawaiian waters.  They rely on stored energy in the form of blubber to sustain themselves and their young for the 3-5 months they are away from their feeding grounds in Alaska.  Humpback whales mainly feed on krill and small fish found in the arctic waters of Alaska during the summer months.  It is estimated that a Humpback Whale will swim 10, 000-16,000 miles during the course of one year. 

There are several types of behavior one could witness from majestic aerial displays above water to beautiful songs underwater.   Tourists and locals alike can observe the whales from shore or by boat.  On a calm day whale spouts can be spotted from miles away.

When a whale exhales it is called a “Blow” or “Spout”. The exhaled breath of a whale comes out of its blow hole with tremendous pressure. The pressure and force of the blow is so high that it vaporizes the sea water around the blow hole forming a vertical column of water vapor. “Blows” are very easy to spot. If you are close when they blow you can hear the exhale, as illustrated in the video below.

The iconic shot of a Humpback whale’s tail is what most people want to see and capture with their cameras. This tail has unique markings that enable researchers to identify, catalogue and keep track of individual whales.

Unknown to most spectators is that this tail-up dive indicates a deep dive by the whale and it will stay below the surface for up to 30 minutes. The length of a dive for a humpback whale is largely dependent on what the whale is doing.
Slow meandering whales will stay down for 10-20 minutes, while whales involved in a heat run will only stay down about 2-5 minutes. Respectively these breath holds can be compared to a human’s breath hold time while relaxing on the sofa versus their breath hold time just after sprinting.

Whales breach for many different reasons. One common thought is adult males will breach to assert and communicate their dominance to surrounding whales.

Mothers will show their young how to breach which can be quite a cute encounter to watch. Whale calves like human babies learn from their parents and also through trial and error. The mother whale will show her calf several times how to breach while the baby tries to imitate its mother.

Whales may also breach to remove parasites from their bodies or just for fun.

When the whales body lands in the water, it radiates out a sound and vibration to other animals nearby. The thought is: The louder and stronger the sound; the bigger, stronger and more desirable the mate.

There are other ways the whales use their bodies to send sounds through the water.

Tail slapping is another way whales can lure in a mate or communicate with surrounding whales.

Whales will hang head down in the water and slap their tales on the surface with great force. A large whale tail slapping at the correct angle can be heard miles away. They can also use their pectoral fins for similar reasons but the sound is not as great. The larger the surface area hitting the water along with the amount of power, equals a louder sound, a whale’s tail slap when done correctly can sound like a cannon going off.


Perhaps one of the most astonishing and beautiful sounds of a whale is their singing. A whale song is a highly complex system of sounds linked together and repeated to convey a theme to other whales. Studies have shown that it is one of the most complex audio displays in the animal kingdom (other than humans). Only the male humpback whales sing and most of it is done in the whale’s wintering grounds. An individual will sing for several hours even though the song itself is only about 15 minutes long.

A whale song is made up of 5-7 “verses” or “stanzas” that are linked together forming a song. Each verse has a different meaning. Every year the songs will change just slightly until after 5-7 years the song is completely different from its original form. All the whales in the northern pacific sing the same verses and songs, meaning the whales in Hawaii, Japan, and Mexico will not only sing the same song but also change and morph their versus the same so that the songs stay the same. There is no scientific explanation for how whales who are thousands of miles apart can simultaneously sing and morph the same songs.

Whale song recorded in Hawaii during one of our charters   

Mothers must come to the warm tropical waters to give birth to their young which are called calves. The babies are born with no blubber to insulate them from the cold arctic waters.  When born the calf weighs between 1 and 2 tons and is about the same size as the mothers head.   Calves are positively buoyant at birth so they can float to the surface for their first breath.  While in Hawaii the baby whales will nurse from the mothers and put on weight to prepare for the long swim back to Alaska.  The young will nurse between 6-12 months.  Some calves will follow their mothers back to Hawaii the following winter while others will stay in Alaska.  Each mother and calf pair are different.


As we said before most of what happens in Hawaiian waters has to do with reproduction. The Males are the ones that compete for the female’s attention. Heat or competition runs are a rare to witness but extremely amazing to see. The strength and powerfulness of the animals is truly visible in these situations. Whales involved in competition runs are there to compete for dominance. A male whale will head lunge, hold down and tail slap other males to bully them out of the competition. There is usually a female in the area that males are trying to mate with. It has been reported that whales have died as a result of competition runs because it is so competitive.