-Published on Mauisea.com
This past year, Alaska Airlines started direct service from Anchorage to Kahului, Maui with much fanfare. While many have taken advantage of the cheap, introductory fares and direct service, there are thousands who have opted for the more traditional route—of swimming.
I refer, of course, to Maui’s humpback whales. Every winter our seasonal relatives make their way from their feeding grounds in the Gulf of Alaska down to the warm, tranquil waters of Maui County. During these winter months when the waters in Alaska become too cold and inhospitable to accommodate the mating behaviors of mature whales, this North Pacific stock actually splits into three distinct groups headed, respectively, for Hawaii, Mexico, and Southern Japan.
Although the whales winter in three separate locations, the overwhelming majority choose to spend their winter months here in Hawaiian waters, with the greatest density being in the waters off of Maui County. Nestled in the warm, shallow basin between the Alakeiki, Auau, and Pailolo channels, these waters provide the protected environment needed to nurse and raise their newborn calves.
Currently, the estimated number of whales making their way to Hawaiian waters is somewhere in the range of 6,000-8,000 strong. With population numbers growing at nearly 4.5% every year, the ever strengthening numbers of whales in Maui waters has made for another awe-inspiring season of nature’s wonders.
A contributing factor in the rapid growth of the number of humpbacks has been the establishment of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Established in 1992, the sanctuary works to protect humpback whales and their natural habitat through education, research, and monitoring of the activities of Hawaii’s whales. Centering on the shallow coastal waters of the main Hawaiian Islands, the entirety of the waters between Maui, Lana’i, and Moloka’i are included in the Sanctuary.
While whale season in Maui officially runs from December 15th to May 15th, the peak of the season really gets going in January through March. During this time it is relatively easy to spot playful whales in the distance from shore, but to really get a heart-racing humpback whale experience you have to get out on the water.
Luckily, whale watch charter operations operate nearly round the clock during the peak season, with many passengers experiencing the thrill of an up-close breach or a whale swimming right underneath and “mugging” the boat. Charter operations such as Trilogy Excursions and Pacific Whale Foundation offer multiple tours every day in order to help people experience the excitement of a close encounter.
At the center of nearly all this activity are the calves that get to call these beautiful waters their place of birth. Whether protecting them, nursing them, or, well, making them, nearly all forms of activity seem to center around these 12 foot long, one ton additions to the underwater world. If you’re lucky enough, you might even come across a “competition pod”, a gathering of whales that lasts for only a number of hours in which up to potentially 20 male whales will all compete with each other for the right to mate with the lone female in the group. In these pods, maneuvers such as head lunges, peduncle throws, pectoral slapping, or spy hopping (as pictured) offer the viewer an amazing surface display of these 40 ton creatures competing in their natural environment.
Many times while simply swimming in the waters off of Maui during the peak season, whale song can be heard underwater as the male whales sing the winter away in the distance. Seeing as the sound is capable of covering nearly a five-mile radius, there is a good chance that while wintering in Maui even the casual swimmer will be able to detect live serenades from these massive ocean creatures. While out on the water, the song of a nearby whale will sometimes even reverberate through the hulls and provide an eerie, yet tropical feel to all those lucky enough to be involved.