Whales are among the largest and oldest animals on Earth, with a spectacular tale of evolution. They began as land-dwelling, hoofed mammals more than 50 million years ago, and then returned to the sea as warm-blooded ocean dwellers. Like humans, whales are sentient creatures who nurse their offspring, form bonds and friendships, sing and play.
They come in all shapes and sizes, from the snowy white arctic belugas and tusked narwhals —which inspired mythical tales of unicorns — to the great orca hunters, singing humpbacks and 100-foot blue whale leviathans, the largest creatures on earth. An 1820 attack on a New England whaling ship by a sperm whale, which can weigh up to 45 tons and grow to 52 feet long, inspired Henry Melville to write Moby Dick. Fortunately, the waters off Hawaii today serve as a sanctuary rather than a slaughterhouse for these magnificent creatures, typically spotted during their migrations to and from warmer waters.
Hawaii visitors and locals alike find their hearts skip a beat when they spot their first humpback of the winter whale-watching season, which reaches its peak in February after initial sightings in late November. Although most of the humpbacks in the estimated herd of 12,000 swims back to Alaska by April, they leave behind unforgettable memories of dramatic breaches, playful tail and fin slaps, eerie underwater songs and tender images of mother whales with calves in tow.
Here are some of the whales to watch for amongst the Hawaiian Islands.
Feature Photo: Humpback whales, courtesy of Guille Pozzi/Unsplash
When: Late November through March (peak viewing mid-January through February)
Where: Off all islands, but especially in the shallower waters between Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe. The Kona-Kohala coast of Hawaii Island is also home to “whale nurseries” ideal for sightings of mothers and calves spouting together.
Where: Some 7,100 sperm whales — the largest whale with teeth, up to 52 feet long — inhabit the deep offshore waters, diving for up to 45 minutes at a time. Sightings are extremely rare, but nearly all have been off the Kona coast.
Where: An estimated 3,000 of these toothed whales typically form herds in the hundreds that roam waters thousands of feet deep. They’re most commonly spotted off Oahu’s Waianae side, the Big Island’s North Kohala coast and the leeward side of Lanai, according to Wild Side Hawaii.
False Killer Whale
Where: Actually a species of dolphin, this small population of about 150 goes back and forth from Kauai to Hawaii. They prefer deep water, so you may spot a pod of 10 to 15 on a snorkeling cruise from Kauai to Niihau, or on a fishing trip from the Big Island’s Honokohau Harbor. Still, Hawaiian Paddle Sports says visitors occasionally spot them off Lahaina and Kaanapali on Maui, as well as between Maui and Lanai.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale
Where: Another large species of dolphin that favors deep offshore waters, this one numbers nearly 9,000 and appears in pods of 25 to 50. You may spot them off leeward (south and west) coasts of all islands.