Cruise Humpback TerritoryBig Island
Anyone who climbs aboard a vessel this time of the year and heads for the open ocean off Hawai‘i Island can expect to see humpback whales. There are so many of them that most boat companies don’t hesitate to guarantee sightings. Truth is, it’s hard to miss a 40-ton humpback when it propels its 45-foot bulk to the surface and then disappears in an enormous salt water splash.
Every year, humpback whales swim 3,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to mate and calve in Hawai‘i’s clear, warm waters. Protected under endangered species laws, the humpback population is growing. An estimated 7,000 to 10, 000 humpbacks are expected to cruise through Hawai‘i’s waters this season, coming and going at their own pace. Generally, numbers peak in late December through mid-April.
Humpbacks exhibit a variety of behaviors that should be visible in one form or another from boats and shoreline lookouts. You might see a whale blow, which refers to the act of breathing and the cloud of water vapor produced above the animal’s head during the process of exhalation. Or, you might see a tail slap, a pectoral slap, or, if you’re lucky, a breach. This watery pirouette occurs when a while propels itself out of the water, generally clearing the surface with two-thirds (or more) of its body. Then, in an amazing feat of
marine gymnastics, the animal will throw one pectoral fin out to the side and turn in the air about its longitudinal axis.
Whales do not technically spout water. Actually, they are letting out air through a blowhole at 300 miles per hour. A humpback whale’s brain weighs 14 pounds, more than four times the weight of a three-pound human brain, but smaller than the 20-pound brain of a sperm whale, which is the largest brain on the planet.
Humpbacks are clever, resourceful andagile creatures. And the males, though they don’t have vocal cords, have developed an amazing ability to sing. Hear their complicated tunes over hydrophones available aboard most whale watching vessels.
Curiosity is another trait known to humpbacks. So, they may not be timid about approaching boats and will often go out of their way to interact with humans. It’s illegal, however, to get closer than 100 yards from a humpback.
Though the humpbacks are the seasonal stars of the show, the waters off this island are home to substantial populations of lower-profile whales that are here year-round and equally intriguing to observe.
There are many ways to observe a humpback whale in the wild. Snorkel cruises are a good bet. Powered rafts and fishing boats also travel humpback territory. Capt. Dan McSweeney conducts year-round whale watch tours. Tours are relatively inexpensive and available on either side of the island.
Two good shoreline viewing sites are Lapakahi State Historical Park, north of Kawaihae at mile marker 14, and Kapa‘a Beach Park off Highway 270. Traveling north, turn left on the one-lane paved road just past mile marker 16.
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