A Whale of a Time

As the Hawaiian population of humpback whales returns home to breed and birth young, researchers and fans gather to gain knowledge and protect the species.

Text by Rae Sojot | Images by John Hook and courtesy of Whale Trust Maui
Featured Photo by Flip Nicklin/Mindin Pictures, NMFS Permit #987.

Kyle Lishman arguably has the best seat in the house when it comes to whale watching: the flight deck. Lishman, a veteran pilot with Island Air, considers his aerial vantage point an especially lucky one when koholā, or humpback whales, return from their summer feeding grounds off Alaska to the warmer Hawaiian waters, where they mate, calve, and nurse their young from November to May. From his seat in the sky, Lishman recognizes their homecoming by telltale signs: playful tail slaps, spouting, and, most awe-inspiring, the iconic breech.

These team members help to manage the 1,370 square miles that make up the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

These team members help to manage the 1,370 square
miles that make up the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The koholā, long revered in Native Hawaiian culture, suffered a devastating blow in the early 20th century, when humpback whales served as the crux of the islands’ booming whaling industry. By 1973, the United States made it illegal to hunt, harm, or disturb humpback whales. That same year, humpback whales were listed on the Endangered Species Act, tragically estimated to have been reduced to a population of only a few thousand.

As conservation efforts grew, so too did global interest in the whales’ plight. So how did the world transform from whaling to whale watching? Hans Vans Tilburg, a historian at the National Marine Sanctuary’s Maritime Heritage Program, points to the discovery of whale song as the watershed moment in galvanizing the public’s shift from indifference to affection. Roger Payne and Scott McVay’s Songs of the Humpback Whale featured never-before-heard recordings of whales’ haunting and mysterious melodies. The album became a meteoric success, and a flexible sound page was included in National Geographic’s 1979 magazine, selling 10 million copies strong—akin to something going viral online in today’s world. Suddenly, whales were transformed from obscure creatures to creatures of cause.

Photo by Flip Nicklin/Mindin Pictures, NMFS Permit #987.

Photo by Flip Nicklin/Mindin Pictures, NMFS Permit #987.

In 1992, Congress created the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, dedicating 1,400 square miles of ocean around Hawai‘i to the protection of the humpback whale population specific to the Hawaiian Islands, and its habitat. Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with the State of Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, it is the only national marine sanctuary designated for the protection of a single species. Distinguished as one of the world’s most important whale breeding habitats, Hawai‘i is the only place where humpbacks reproduce in the United States.

Though facing extinction only 50 years ago, upwards of 15,000 koholā now migrate back to their Hawaiian homeland waters each winter. With critical ocean issues like pollution and increased temperatures looming, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Malia Chow believes that whales can serve as a living metric to the changes in our oceans, and potentially even provide critical information regarding our ocean’s future. “Our koholā are essentially … ambassadors,” she says.

In October 2016, Hawai‘i’s humpback whales were removed from the endangered species list—a victory nod to their recovery. (Other populations of humpback whales are still considered endangered.) Despite this delisting, research of the Hawaiian population of whales is still fathoms from a final conclusion. “There is still so much to learn about these animals, including basic information about mating and calving,” says Meagan Jones, one of three co-founders of Whale Trust Maui. “No one has ever documented a mating or live birth.” Challenges the whales still face include vessel strikes, gear entanglement, and ocean noise disturbances. Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit marine research and education organization established in 2001, collaborates with researchers worldwide to gather and share scientific research to advance the world’s understanding of whales and oceans.


Photo by Ed Lyman, HIHWNMS/NOAA Permit #15420.

Photo by Ed Lyman, HIHWNMS/NOAA Permit #15420.

How To Get Involved:

Help Count Hawai‘i’s Whale Population with the Sanctuary Ocean Count 2017

As whale populations strengthen, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary continues its mission through research, education, and outreach programs. Their annual Sanctuary Ocean Count is an opportunity for volunteers to get involved. Held on three Saturdays during peak whale season (January to March), the event draws thousands of participants—both residents and visitors—to help count and monitor whales at 60 designated shoreline sites across O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i Island. “Hawai‘i is a hot spot for humpback whales, and people want to learn about them,” explains Cindy Among-Serrao, the sanctuary’s ocean-count coordinator. Volunteers spend the morning sighting and logging whale behaviors. The information is then collated, providing an anecdotal snapshot of the islands’ whale activity. According to Among-Serrao, there’s often a fun and festive air at these gatherings, as people come together via a shared passion. The popularity of the Sanctuary Ocean Count underscores its success. “We have a lot of repeat volunteers,” Among-Serrao says.

Held on the last Saturday of January, February, and March at designated sites on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i Island. Free and open to the public. Registration required. hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov

Meet, Learn From, and Help

Fund Whale Researchers at Whale Tales 2017

Whales are also supported each year through Whale Tales, the free four-day event hosted by Whale Trust Maui that showcases the latest works and research findings of a consortium of scientists, photographers, filmmakers, and conservationists. An art exhibition, benefit whale-watching tours, and other ocean activities help to generate funds for Whale Trust Maui’s research and education projects. Since its inception, Whale Tales has raised more than a half-million dollars, and has reached more that 15,000 people, including a key audience in developing future ocean stewards—schoolchildren. This year, the trust will partner with MacGillivray Freeman Films, who most recently produced the IMAX film Humpback Whales in collaboration with Whale Trust Maui and the Pacific Life Foundation, for the event.

Held at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Feb. 24–27. Free and open to the public ($20 donation suggested). Registration required. whaletrust.org

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