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Kohola – Hawaii’s Humpback Whales

Have you ever heard a whale’s song? Eerie and haunting, the song of kohola (the humpback whale) is a stellar sound. In Hawaii, the whale return is not looked upon as a visit, but rather a homecoming. The humpbacks are considered “Kama'aina” or native born.

If you have long had a desire to witness firsthand the passage of whales on their annual migration to warmer waters to give birth to their young, the Hawaiian Islands are an ideal place to do so. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where kohola mate, calve, and nurse their young. With temperatures averaging from 75-to-80 degrees Fahrenheit, the whales are drawn to the islands' balmy waters.

“Gentle giants of the sea,” humpbacks devote the winter months to “bulking up,” building up fat reserves by filter-feeding on tiny crustaceans and schools of small fish such as krill and herring. One of the largest species of baleen whales, kohola are impressive in size: adult males reach up to 50 feet or more and weigh up to 45 tons, and the females can reach over 60 feet in length and up to 60 tons in weight. Native Hawaiians believe kohola are 'aumakua (family guardians) or gentle giants to be treated with Aloha and great respect.

Surprisingly agile for their size, humpback whales are graceful acrobats, delighting spectators with their frolicking and playful antics. It is an unforgettable sight to see a humpback whale “breach,” catapulting to project more than 50 percent of its body out of the water to land on its side with a massive splash.

If you would like to visit the islands to view this spectacular odyssey, the best time to plan your trip is from December to May when weather conditions are sunny and clear. During the fall, Northern Pacific Humpback whales depart the frigid waters of the Gulf of Alaska, swimming non-stop for up to eight weeks on their journey to their winter home in the waters surrounding Hawaii. Here they mate, have their young, and care for their calves. One of the many miracles of nature, the 6,000-mile yearly migration of the Northern Pacific Humpback whale is one of the longest migration journeys of any mammal.

Hawaii’s Whaling Era

As evidenced by petroglyphs, artifacts, myths, and legends, the kohola has long played an important role in the island’s rich historical heritage. The history of whaling in Hawaii began in 1819 when two ships from New England dropped anchor in Hawaiian waters. With the discovery of rich whaling grounds between Hawaii and Japan, hundreds of whaling ships from around the world sailed into the Hawaiian waters.

At that point in time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and maintaining industrial machinery; whalebone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.

Due to its Central Pacific location, equidistant from Japan and the United States, Hawaii was important in resupplying the ships with supplies from the fertile lands.

Not excited by the typical Hawaiian diet of fish and poi, the sailors wanted fresh fruit, vegetables, beef, sugar and white potatoes. To satisfy the whaling trade demand, Hawaiians began to cultivate new crops, changing the agricultural use of the land. For Hawaii, whaling was the mainstay of the economy for more than 40 years. By 1846, there were 763 whaling ships that docked in Hawaii ports.

When oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, petroleum products soon came to replace whale oil for heating, lighting, and other uses, spelling the end of the whaling industry. Unfortunately, due to over-fishing, by that time the whale population was decimated, with an estimated population of fewer than 6,000 humpback whales worldwide.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, listed the humpback as endangered, providing the needed protection and ecological habitat for long-term recovery. Protection efforts have proved successful. As of September 2016, the North Pacific Humpback Whale is removed from the endangered species list, once again frolicking in Hawaii water’s to the delight of residents and visitors alike. Today, more than 11,500 kohola make the annual migration to Hawaii.