Where are the Humpback Whales?

Over the past three years, it appears the number of humpback whales coming to Hawaii for the winter are declining. This finding is based not only on hard counts of the whales, but also on the diminishing number of males that have been recorded singing. Finally, and perhaps most troubling, there have been fewer sightings of mother-calf pairs.

Rachel Cartwright, a whale researcher with the Keiki Kohola Project, says the number of mother-calf pairs peaked in the 2013-14 whale season (whale season being December – May). Since then, the number of sightings of the pairs has dropped about 80%.

If you’re coming to Maui and are worried there may not be any whales this winter, fear not! “They’re not all gone,” Ed Lyman, with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser. “We are seeing indications of fewer whales near the islands where our effort is … There are still plenty of whales out there.”

How many? Here on Maui, the Great Whale Count has been using volunteers to count whales from Maui’s shores for 30 years. In February, 2018, over 100 volunteers counted 529 humpback whales. That’s a good number, but down significantly (46%) from 2017 when 984 whales were counted. Let’s take a quick look at the whale numbers, as counted by the Great Whale Count over the past five years:

2018: 529
2017: 984
2016: 732 (an El Nino year that researchers believe stymied whales)
2015: 1488
2014: 1331

Researchers concerned about the shrinking whale counts have advanced three reasons why they could be declining. Let’s explore them.

The first theory is that the whales are not getting sufficient nutrients over the summer in Alaska. In Alaska, the whales feed on small fish and krill. If the whales’ prey are no longer abundant in Alaska, the whales may be having to search elsewhere for food and this could potentially shift their migration pattern. At the same time, if the whales can’t digest enough food to power the 3,000 mile journey Hawaii, then they obviously won’t reach us. At this point, we should remind you the humpbacks do NOT feed while in Hawaii. They need to consume enough in Alaska to support themselves throughout the year. Surveys have shown the whales in both Alaska and Hawaii are thinner than they have been in past years.

The second theory is that the number of whales isn’t actually declining, rather they simply staying further offshore and thus aren’t being counted or heard.

The third theory, which is similar to both of the others, is there is a finite number of resources to sustain the whales. It’s possible the number of whales the Hawaiian islands can support has reached its limit and the whales are now searching out other locations in the Pacific.

Last year, the first whales were spotted off of Maui in late October, which is the earliest watchers can remember the whales arriving. By mid-April, the whales were nearly all gone. Where the season is traditionally from December to May, if the “peak season” for whales has shifted from February to earlier in the calendar, say, December, then that could be another explanation for the declining February whale counts.

We keep a close eye out our for whales. When we start spotting them from our Lanai Snorkel and Dolphin Tour, we alert local researchers and once we see them in abundance we launch our Whale Watch tours. We hope to see you and the whales soon!

By the way, did you know that you can now save $10/person on our Maui Princess Dinner Cruise or a Snorkel Adventure to the Island of Lanai? Well you can! Just use the promocode VIP20 after clicking on this link: Hawaii Ocean Project Adventures.