December is a very exciting time. It brings the holidays and all the excitement of the season, New Year’s Eve and the promise of a fresh start, and here on Kauai, it brings the whales. Thousands of kohola, Hawaiian Humpback Whales, make the long, slow journey from Alaska to Hawaii every winter.
North Pacific Humpback Whales spend the summer months feasting in the cold waters of Alaska, building up their fat stores. Then, at a time designated by thousands of years of instinct, they begin the long, arduous migration south. The journey to Hawaii takes an average of 30-40 days. The whales travel alone or in small groups and arrive in a trickle, with the juveniles coming first, followed by mature males, then mature females, and expectant mothers bringing up the rear. The warmer waters of Hawaii are conducive to mating, and the ideal place for calves to begin life. Baby humpbacks are born without protective layers of blubber, and many scientists believe that they would not survive the early stages of life in the colder waters to the north. Their doting mothers spend weeks fattening them up and teaching them how to jump, play and breach before heading north again with their little ones in tow. Adult whales eat little or nothing while they are here, and will shed several tons during the Hawaiian winter. Nursing mothers may drop as much as a third of their weight. In fact, the whales may be the only ones who actually lose weight while they’re on vacation. By April or May, the last of the whales begin the return trip to their frigid feeding grounds.
Humpback whales are still officially on the endangered species list, which affords them legal protection, and much of the ocean throughout the Hawaii Chain is designated as a whale sanctuary. The advent of the steamship just prior to 1800 led to the widespread slaughter of thousands and thousands of humpbacks. It is estimated that at one point the North Pacific Humpback Whale population dwindled to as few as 1,000 whales. In 1973, Humpback Whales were officially registered as an endangered species, and there are now record numbers of these peaceful creatures flourishing in our seas. They do still fall prey to man-made dangers on their annual migration, often getting tangled in fishing lines, struck by vessels or injured due to environmental pollutants, but once they reach Hawaii’s protected waters they are free to play, mate and bare their young in the warm shallows of the tropics.
In the winter months, these majestic beasts can be spotted offshore around Kauai. Kukui’ula is a perfect spot to sit patiently, gaze out to sea, and enjoy the whale show. It is not uncommon to see them gently lifting their newborn calves to the surface, spouting, waving their fins and hurling the entirety of their massive bodies up and out of the water and landing with an enormous splash as they breach. It’s been suggested that this behavior is pure joyful play. It is certainly awesome to behold. Kohola seem to be especially prolific on Kauai’s south and west sides, and a boat tour is recommended for anyone hoping to get a closer look. Humpbacks are notoriously curious about boats and often come in quite close to investigate. Of course it is important to remember that we should never approach a whale.
If you are fortunate enough to be on Kauai in the winter, our beautiful visiting whales will help make your time here unforgettable. Stay at one of the finest Hawaii luxury real estate and choose whale watching as one of the many activities that you can enjoy during your stay. If you’d like to help protect these amazing animals, you can sign up for the annual Sanctuary Ocean Count Project, where volunteers are posted in various spots around the island to watch for whales and count how many they see.