The annual return to Hawaiian waters of the humpback whales — named for the motion they make as they arch their backs out of the water in preparation for a dive — is one of the most anticipated times in the islands, both for visitors and for residents. When we see the spouting, tail slapping, and athletic, full-body leaps from the water, even the locals stop by the side of the road, or pause what they’re doing to watch in gleeful wonder.
It’s painful to imagine, but these gentle giants who visit Hawai`i between November and March were once hunted close to extinction by whalers. The practice was sustainable — even if repulsive by today’s standards — through the 1850s and ‘60s. But once explosive harpoons were introduced in the late 19th century, the kill rate increased dramatically, and consequently the population of humpback whales saw a sharp decline.
Nowadays there are an estimated 140,000 humpback whales in the world’s oceans. This encouraging recovery was largely brought about when the International Whaling Commission gave the humpbacks protected status in 1966. Still, the number is only 30 - 35 percent of the species’ original population; and while stocks have partially recovered, today’s challenges include entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution associated with sonar blasting the U.S. Navy was conducting until a recent agreement limiting the practice was reached.
A typical adult humpback weighs 40 tons, and lives 45-50 years. During their annual migration from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator, they travel some 3,100 miles at speeds of three to nine mph. They can travel up to 1,000 miles per month.