“Spotlight On Maui” is a monthly series written for VacationRoost, an online accommodation site helping you find your perfect rental.
1. What kind of whales are in Maui?
Although rare species such as false killer whales and pilot whales occasionally make appearances in Maui waters, 99.9% of the time you are going to be watching North Pacific humpback whales. Sperm whales and orca have been spotted in deep waters much further offshore, but it’s the aerial, acrobatic humpbacks which make for enthralling Maui whale watching experiences during the tropical winter months.
2. Where do these whales come from?
If you’re ever offered this question by a crewmember while out on a Maui whale watch, remember that it’s a trick. Technically these whales come from Maui seeing as this where they are born, but in practical terms the humpback whales have migrated here from the nutrient-filled waters of Alaska. During the summer months the humpbacks will gorge themselves on schools of krill and small fish, and once the water in Alaska becomes too cold for their liking they begin the long journey south. More than just a comfort issue, if the calves were born in the cold Alaskan waters they would freeze within a matter of days since they have accumulated enough fat stores on their body yet to withstand the winter chill. Although the humpbacks found in Alaska will also migrate to the coastline of Mexico as well as to islands in the far western Pacific, the grand majority of North Pacific humpback whales choose to ride out the winters in Maui.
Humpback whales are the world’s 5th largest whales and can grow to between 40-50 ft. Females are often a bit larger than males due to reverse sexual dimorphism, which is a fancy way of saying that since they have to give birth to a 10 ft., 2000 lb. baby they need to be a little bit larger than the males. When it comes to their weight humpbacks on average will weigh about one ton/foot, which means that a 20 ft. humpback would weigh 20 tons, and a full-grown adult can weigh upwards of 50 tons!
4. So what do the whales eat while in Maui?
Actually, humpback whales will go the entire time they spend in Maui—up to 4 months—without eating anything at all. Consequently the adult whales will lose up to 1/3 of their body weight during their winter vacation. Although whale watch crew will tell you the reason why the humpbacks don’t eat while in Maui is because the food is too expensive (a classic bad whale watching joke), the reason why adult whales don’t eat while they’re in Hawaii is simply because there isn’t anything for them to eat even if they wanted to. Unlike toothed specie such as sperm whales, humpbacks are equipped with baleen in lieu of teeth, which is a hard substance made out of keratin—the same substance which makes up human fingernails. In a process known as “filter-feeding” the whales will expand their ventral pleats to ingest the same volume of water as a hollowed out African elephant, and they then use the plates of baleen to strain out any krill, plankton, or small fish which may have been caught up in the gulp. The water passes through the baleen, and whatever food is left behind is consequently swallowed. Because Maui’s waters are so warm, however, they are devoid of the whale’s primary food source, so attempting to feed while in Maui would be the equivalent of taking a huge gulp of water and then spitting it all out.
5. But the calves must be eating somehow in order to grow
Even though adult humpbacks don’t eat for the entire time they’re in Maui the calves are nursing mom’s milk. Unlike 2% milk which we might buy in the grocery store, whale’s milk is close to a 40% milkfat, thereby making it more of a yogurt or cottage cheese. The calves will consume up to 100 gallons of this milk on a daily basis, and due to the copious amount of feeding they can actually gain anywhere from 7 to 10 pounds every hour.
6. So why do whales come to Maui?
Although humpback whales can be sighted throughout the entire Hawaiian Island chain, of all the humpbacks which migrate to Maui the majority head to the calm, shallow waters between Maui, Moloka’i, and Lana’i. There was a time tens of thousands of years ago when the four islands of Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe all comprised a large island known as Maui Nui (which was slightly larger than the current size of the Big Island). At the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago, however, scientists estimate that sea levels in this part of the Pacific rose an average of 300 ft., thereby spilling into the valleys of Maui Nui an inundating the low-lying areas. The end-result of this occurrence was that Maui Nui was splintered into the 4 islands which comprise Maui County today. The reason this is important for the whales, however, is that whereas the waters in areas such as the northern shores of Maui and Moloka’i can be thousands of feet deep, the waters between the islands of Maui County have an average depth of only 300 ft. Consequently, this area forms a safe, protected body of water (particularly from large, toothy predators such as orca), and is thereby the perfect “kiddie pool” for raising and nurturing their newborn calves.
7. How long does it take to travel between Maui and Alaska?
Humpbacks definitely have it harder than humans when it comes to traveling between Hawaii and Alaska. Whereas us humans can make the journey from Maui to Anchorage on a 5-hour flight, it can take the humpbacks in the range of 6-8 weeks to successfully navigate their way from the feeding grounds to the breeding grounds. Seeing as there isn’t anywhere to stop along the way to take a rest, it’s believed that the humpbacks make a continuous, non-stop journey at an average speed of 3-5 mph.
As anyone who has ever gone diving in the open blue Pacific has surely found out, when there are no landmasses to use as reference points it can be pretty easy to get lost. Seeing as the ocean floor between Hawaii and Alaska is far too deep for the whales to see, these fascinating creatures successfully navigate to the most remote islands on Earth amidst a sea of blue which looks exactly the same in every direction you look. But how? In what it one of the most alluring aspects of whale’s capabilities, autopsies have shown that humpback whales have trace amounts of a naturally-occurring substance called magnetite that exists in the forefront of their brains. As the name implies, magnetite has magnetic properties to it, and it’s believed that the whales use this magnetite as a means of tapping in to the magnetic pull of the Earth to determine which way they need to travel.
9. Weird. OK, but now the big question: Why do whales breach?
While it sounds like a copout, the main answer is simply because they can. There are a lot theories floating out there, but trying to explain exactly why whales breach is like trying to explain why humans do anything weird that we do, which is simply because we can. Amongst the leading theories are that humpbacks may be using the force of the impact to slough barnacles off of their bellies and skin. Another theory is that they are working out their tail muscles for the long journey back home. The reason why humpbacks are so aerial in the first place is that despite being only the 5th largest whale, they possess the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom known as the peduncle. Occupying the latter third of a humpback’s body, the peduncle muscle is so strong that even a fully-grown adult is able to propel themselves entirely out of the water with a mere two-three flaps of the tail.
10. Ok. I’m sold. So when is the best time to go on a whale watch in Maui?
Although the first whale sightings will usually occur sometime in early October, whale season officially runs from December 15-May 15, with most companies having ceased operations by the end of April. While sightings are possible all the way until the first week of June, the true peak of the season where you are guaranteed to see whales is a ten-week period which runs from January 15-March 31.
With airlines offering up some record-low deals and the start of whale season lurking right around the corner, there are definitely deals to be had out there for experiencing one of nature’s wonders displayed emphatically before you eyes.
Are you coming to Maui for whale season? Check out VacationRoost for affordable vacation rentals and housing options during your stay on the island of Maui.