For a split second, a 15-meter-long Humpback whale soars into the air. It arches its back gracefully and disappears back into waves, flicking its tail as if waving goodbye. 79,000 pounds just crashed into the sea. A flash of foam, and the water is still again.
Whale season is in full-swing in Hawaii. Humpback whales begin their mammoth swim from the numbing waters of Alaska to Hawaii in early fall. This is a distance of about 3500 miles. By November, throngs of whales arrive to the islands to give birth, mate, sing, and play in the warm ocean. The island chain insulates the water, warming it up to the perfect temperature for whales to give birth and raise their calves. And unlike Alaskan waters, Hawaii's waters are mostly predator-free.
Since Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific, its waters lack food essential to the whale's survival over a long period of time. They rely on blubber storage for energy, and return to Alaska in April to feed on krill.
Petroglyphs, legends, and artifacts from ancient Hawaii suggest that native Hawaiians were very aware of the humpbacks' presence in their waters. It is little known, however, what the natives did with this information. Some theories allege that Kohola, Hawaiian for whale, were so sacred that only a few elite members of society were allowed to know about them. Other theories say that the whales didn't start migrating here until 200 years ago.
Maui is the best island to spot breaching whales. The channel between Lana'i and Lahaina acts as a whale highway this time of year. Tourists can spot breaching whales from their hotel room balconies, while dining at one of the beachside eateries, or sunbathing on the beach. From the road, drivers enroute to Lahaina can spy breaches from the Pali lookout. And for those that can't seem to get enough, taking a boat to the little island of Molokini, a renowned snorkeling and diving spot, is also a surefire way to see them.
While Maui boasts the best whale watching, every island has its whale-sighting hotspots. On Oahu, whales pass through the Moloka'i Channel on the southeast side of the island. The highway through here winds along steep cliffs, so it's best to keep all eyes on the road and park at one of the many lookout points. The west side of the island also tends to see a lot of whales. Many boat tour companies along the south and west shores claim they see a whale on every tour.
On the Big Island, whale watching tours leave from the Kona side. Unlike the other islands, Hawaii is also the year-round home to other whales such as Sperm whales, Pygmy Killer whales, and Pilot whales. Thus, whale watchers might end up seeing multiple species of whales in one trip.
On Kaua'i, elevated areas along the coastline such as Kilauea Lighthouse and Kealia Lookout are probable places to spot whales. The famed Kalalau trail on the Na'Pali not only offers whale viewings, but also a challenging hike through one of Hawaii's most pristine landscapes. Boat tours are also abundant, and better for those who want an up-close-and-personal whale experience.
By late April the whale calves are strong enough for an overseas swim, and adult whales hunger for plankton and krill as their fat storage runs out. They will have graced the pages of photo albums and web sites around the globe, leaving many enthusiasts craving next whale season. With a flick of their tail, they will announce "aloha" and disappear until next November.
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