North Pacific Humpback Whales leave the icy waters around Alaska during the fall, swimming practically non-stop for nearly 6 to 8 weeks before reaching their Hawaiian winter home, where they mate, give birth, and nurture their calves. Their annual migration of about 6,000 miles is one of the longest of any mammal.

Like most northern hemisphere baleen whales, humpbacks feed during the summer in sub-arctic regions and migrate to sub-tropical waters in winter to breed. Today, there may be as many as 6,000 humpbacks found in the North Pacific, in three somewhat distinct populations.

  • The eastern stock migrates primarily between the coasts of Northern Califoria in the summer and Mexico in the winter.
  • The central stock summers in southeast Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska and winters in the waters around Hawai'i.
  • The western stock migrates between the Aleutian Islands area in the summer and islands south of Japan in the winter.
Some exchange between these groups has been observed on the breeding grounds.

Beginning in mid to late November, mother whales nursing their calves usually arrive first in Hawai'i. Then juveniles and newly weaned yearlings come. The adult males arrive next, double the number of adult females who follow. Finally, the pregnant females arrive, after feeding up to the last minute in Alaska.

Humpbacks are distributed throughtout the world's oceans, although all populations were depleted by whaling from the mid-1800's and into this century. As many as 15,000 humpbacks may have once roamed the North Pacific, but the numbers were reduced to less than 1,000 animals by 1965.

The waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are one of the most important humpback whale habitats. Humpbacks prefer two major areas in Hawai'i: the four-island region of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho'olawe, and the Penguin Band, a tongue of shallow water extending 25 miles southwest of western Molokai. Within about the last 10 years, the whales have spread to the Big Island, Kauai and Oahu, between Koko Head and Sandy Beach, and to the North Shore.

In 1992, Congress recognized the importance of this habitat and designated critical areas as the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Humpbacks are listed as an endangered species and are protected by federeal and state regulations.

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