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Celebrating the Koholā Return

November marks the annual arrival of Humpback Whales to the waters surrounding our Hawaiian Islands

Humpback Whales, known as Koholā in the Hawaiian language, are marathon swimmers traveling 6,000 miles roundtrip from frigid Alaskan waters to the shallow, warm waters here each winter. While a few solo swimmers – elite athletes among the thousands making the trip – start to appear as early as late September or early October, numbers increase substantially beginning in November. On average, each 3000-mile segment takes about 28 days to complete, according to researchers. 

Taking a break from their feeding grounds in the far North Pacific, experts say Humpback Whales migrate to Hawai’i to mate, give birth and nurse their calves before undertaking the return voyage beginning in April. These magnificent mammals have been doing it for thousands of years, according to historians. Native Hawaiian culture recognizes the whale as an ancient being, long revered as a physical manifestation of Kanaloa, god of the sea and open-ocean voyaging. Protection and preservation of these marine mammals is in keeping with native Hawaiians’ cultural heritage and commitment to sustainability. 

Fourth-generation Hawai’i Island native, Daniel Perez, lead Alaka’i Nalu waterman and boat captain at Hualalai Resort, leads whale watch tours along the Kona Coast, raising awareness about these gentle giants and the need to protect them. 

Having spent nearly 26 years as a skilled waterman at the resort, Perez says, “It’s a privilege sharing information about this special place, the marine environment and, of course, the whales with others. There are certain places along the coast where the whales like to congregate, and the waters offshore at Hualalai are one of them.”

This area, he says, as well as nearby Kua Bay, Kiholo Bay and Makalawena, is among the spots where whales and their calves may be seen close to shore, performing acrobatics – breaching, tail and flipper slapping, and spy hopping among them.     

Crediting state and federal agencies for marine regulations aimed at protecting the whales, he also says, “It takes a community effort to achieve this goal. That includes skilled watermen and women working at beach parks and resorts up and down the coast who are always monitoring whale behavior and looking out for any possible problems they may be having during their time here.”

Among government agencies responsible for enforcing regulations, including those cited in the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, he says, are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the U.S. Coast Guard. NOAA also established the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to further protect this region, which is crucial for the continued proliferation of the species. 

Another group based in Hawai’i Island’s upcountry town of Waimea, the Hawai‘i Marine Mammal Consortium (HMMC), consists of scientists from around the country who focus on marine mammal research and conservation in Hawai’i’s waters. Committed to increasing awareness and education about marine mammals within the community, among its primary goals is linking its scientists with local teachers, and providing educational resources and internship opportunities for high school, college and university students. Each year, HMMC members spend time in classrooms, teaching humpback whale biology and HMMC research methods to dozens of K-12 children in public and private schools, mainly in the Waimea/Kohala area. 

Today, with many thanks to these organizations, local volunteers, and Hawai’i watermen and women, the Humpback Whale population is thriving following near depletion prior to the enactment of the ban on commercial whaling in 1995. More than 95% of the world’s Humpback population was depleted prior to that, according to NOAA. While the population continues to increase, threats still remain including entanglement in fishing nets, gear and other debris, vessel strikes, vessel and human harassment, as well as acoustic disturbances that impact the whales’ ability to communicate and navigate, according to NOAA officials. 

It’s the work of these organizations and individuals that continue to minimize the threats to Koholā in Hawaiian waters. We say kudos and mahalo to all of them!  

Need to Know

Humpback Whales are a protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act which mandates a distance of at least 100 yards away when viewing whales by boat, canoe, kayak and other vessels, and when swimming.

Report any violations of these regulations to the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline, (800) 853-1964  

To report an entangled whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Hotline at (888) 256-9840 or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.

For information on how to volunteer with the Sanctuary Ocean Count, contact, oceanount@marinesanctuary.org. The Sanctuary Ocean Count is a signature outreach and citizen science project created to promote public awareness about Humpback Whales, the sanctuary and shore-based whale-watching opportunities. Conducted three times per year during peak whale season (January, February and March), it provides a snapshot of Humpback Whale sightings from the shoreline to collect information on the numbers of sightings and surface behavior.

More general information may be found by logging onto HawaiiHumpbackWhales.NOAA.Gov; DLNR.Hawaii.Gov; HMMC.org.

“It takes a community effort to achieve this goal. That includes skilled watermen and women working at beach parks and resorts up and down the coast who are always monitoring whale behavior and looking out for any possible problems they may be having during their time here.”

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