Know How To Spot These 5 Whales in Hawaii

Know How To Spot These 5 Whales in Hawaii

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

Humpback Whale

A whale breaches the surface of the ocean, its body partially out of the water. The sky above is partly cloudy, and the sea is slightly choppy with visible waves. In the background, there is a distant Hawaiian landmass.
Photo: Courtesy of Joshua Sukoff/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.

Sperm Whale

A large sperm whale swims underwater in the deep blue ocean off the coast of Hawaii. Its massive head and distinct rectangular shape are clearly visible. The whale's skin shows various markings, and its small eye is discernible near the front of its head.
Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

When: Year-round

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.

Melon-Headed Whale

A pygmy killer whale swims in the clear blue waters of Hawaii. The marine mammal has a sleek, greyish body with a lighter underbelly, a curved dorsal fin, and slightly pointed pectoral fins. The whale is surrounded by the deep blue sea.
Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons

When: Year-round

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

Three orcas swimming close to the surface of the ocean. Two orcas have their dorsal fins visible above the water, while the third orca is partially submerged. Water sprays into the air as they move, resembling whales in Hawaii. The ocean is a deep blue color under a clear sky.
Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons

When: Year-round

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

A dolphin glides just below the surface of the clear blue water, creating ripples and reflections. The dolphin's smooth body and dorsal fin are visible, while light patterns play on the water's surface around it. Nearby, tales of whales in Hawaii add a touch of magic to the serene scene.
Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons

When: Year-round

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.

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