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The HUMPBACK WHALE is the fifth largest whale in the world and the fourth most endangered. Hawaii is the most important breeding grounds for North Pacific humpbacks.

Humpbacks travel some 3000 miles from productive summer feeding grounds in Alaska to Hawaii where mothers give birth to small babies in warm water. Calves may gain over 100 pounds per day nursing on fat-rich mother's milk to build a blubber layer of insulation to tolerate the cold waters of their high latitude feeding grounds.

Humpback Whales Migration Routes - Click for More InformationPeople and humpbacks are increasing their shared use of the same marine habitats. A one-hundred yard approach limit has been established to give the whales the benefit of the right-of-way.

One day in the 1998 winter season the Hawai'i Wildlife Fund recorded a count of 129 humpbacks on a six-hour naturalist-guided snorkel excursion and whale watch in the waters between Maui and Lana'i.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is one of only 12 so-called marine national parks and is the only preserve in the United States dedicated to a marine mammal.

Humpback Whale Anatomy and Behavior IDENTIFYING FEATURES:

  • Dorsal color - dark gray to black
  • Ventral color - dark with white markings
  • Arch of back while diving - hence the name "Humpback"
  • Tubercles on rostrum
  • Long pectoral fins


FEEDING - The humpbacks don't eat during their six months in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawai'i doesn't offer their food, krill and herring. But, since the whales spent the winter in the north, doing nothing but eating, they carry their summer food supply in their fat.

SLEEPING - Humpbacks sleep with half their brain at a time. Then they switch sides, and put the other half to sleep. The side that remains awake acts as a sentinel to protect the whale from threats, including sharks and boats.

MIGRATION - Humpbacks take about 39 days to travel the 3,200 miles from Alaska. They cruise an estimated 3 to 4 miles per hour, and are believed to swim 24 hours a day. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO ON WHALE MIGRATION

BREACH - One of the most thrilling behaviors to observe is the breach. With just a few strokes of their flukes, humpbacks can gain enough momentum to hurl their 30 ton, 45 foot bodies into the air, then crash back down with a thunderous splash! Theories abound as to why whales breach, from acoustic signalling, to removal of barnacles, to joyous play.

TAIL SLAP - A powerful action often used in aggressive encounters, the tail slap occurs when the whale's flukes are lifted clear out of the water and then brought down on the surface with a great resounding "crack!" Whales have been seen tailslapping repeatedly, more than 40 times! The width of their flukes can reach 15 feet and the underside is a distinctive as our own fingerprints.

PECTORAL SLAP - Humpbacks have the longest pectoral fins of all whales, stretching up to 15 feet in length. These fins may be used to help maneuver the whale or signalling. A pectoral slap is created when a whale rolls on its side, raises its pectoral fin out of the water and forcefully slaps in down. At times a whale will turn completely on its back and slap both fins on the waters surface.

COURTSHIP - Dynamic displays of humpbacks performing courtship behaviors can be seen in the waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Males engage in competitve activities with each other for access to receptive females. Sometimes whales lunge aggressively at each other trying to displace one another resulting in superficial abrasions.

NURTURANCE - Mothers and claves are always seen close together: there is a powerful bond between them. Mothers often use their pectoral fins to caress and cradle their young and have been seen assisting their babies to the surface. Newborns are 12 to 15 feet long and can weigh 2 tons. Calves typically nurse for 8 to 12 months and can consume 80 gallons in a day! They can double their size in one year.

WHALE SONG - Although it may sound like groaning, screeching or creaking to us, humpbacks can produce sounds that are classified as true songs.

Songs are produced on the breeding grounds, and to date, singers observed have been identified as males. Researchers speculate that singing may play a role in attracting a mate, establishing a territory, or advertising availability.

Humpbacks in Hawai'i all sing virtually the same song. Their song is identical to that of the humpbacks breeding off the coasts of Mexico and Japan. The song changes every year, and it changes across the Pacific basin at virtually the same time! The song of the humpback is a mystery and a marvel: its purpose may be more complex than we can imagine.


Click to send EmailHawai'i Wildlife Fund helped achieve the creation of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and provides Sanctuary volunteers and representatives on the Sanctuary Advisory Committee.

Hawai'i Wildlife Fund naturalists teach thousands of visitors each year out in the living classroom about dolphin societies and life histories and respectful low-impact human behavior around our delphinid brethren.

Hawai'i Wildlife Fund naturalists provide expert narration and interpretation on whale watches in the waters off Maui during the winter whale season, educating visitors and locals about Hawaii's favorite marine mammal.

Hawai'i Wildlife Fund conducts whale naturalist training classes each season as part of an education program at Maui Community College.



Visit Maui, Kona, Kauai or other places in Hawaii during the humpbacks' winter stay on their breeding grounds. Join us on naturalist-led whale watches and enjoy the acrobatic anecdotes of curious newborns, nurturing mothers and aggressive competitive males.

Make a tax-deductible donation to contribute to the education and understanding of humpback whales.

Visit the HAWAI'I WILDLIFE FUND Hawai'i Wildlife Fund is made up of dedicated educators, volunteers, and conservationists. Find out who they are, what their goals are, and what they're doing to help preserve Hawaii's native wildlife. Join us.

Go along for an educational day of fun on the water, volunteer your time with their turtle, monk seal or marine habitat projects.

Adopt your favorite ocean creature or make a tax-deductible donation to help preserve the beauty and diversity of Hawaii's marine environment. Find out how you can get involved.


Click to Adopt a Whale or other Marine Animal


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