Hawaii and Alaska’s Humpback Connection
An incredible migration links Hawaii and Alaska, offering unbelievable sights and experiences.
Every year, an estimated 11,000 humpback whales make their way from the nutrient-dense feeding grounds of the North Pacific to the warm winter nurseries of the Hawaiian Islands. This 3,000-mile journey through the largest and deepest ocean on Earth is one of the longest migrations of any animal, a remarkable feat of navigation and endurance that mystifies scientists even after decades of study.
“As far as we’ve come, it can’t compare to all we have yet to learn,” says Flip Nicklin.
Spending his life in the water — most notably as National Geographic’s premier cetacean photographer and marine mammal specialist — Nicklin now divides his days between Juneau and the island of Maui, where he spends so much time with humpbacks it can be hard to tell who’s following whom.
He reminisces about the day he first felt a connection with a humpback: a singing male who hung motionless in the water, striking a pose. Waves of vibration passed through Nicklin’s bones as the whale’s song echoed and reverberated around him, cocooning him in sound. He remembers slipping downward through the sea, the blood thrumming in his ears, as well as the moment when he swallowed his fear and it turned into awe.
His life’s labor has aimed to inspire that same sense of wonder in others. Today, Nicklin continues that work through Whale Trust, the nonprofit organization he co-founded in 2001 for whale research and public education. Of all the world’s whales, he considers humpbacks special oceanic ambassadors — perfect conduits to conservation.
“They’re like us,” he says. “They have arms that seem to wave and communicate, they’re curious and friendly and interactive. They just naturally resonate with people.”
Fortunately, there are so many ways to connect with humpbacks in Hawaii and Alaska that Nicklin says “all you really have to do is show up.”
Because of COVID-19, please take recommended safety precautions if you are planning a future trip, and always check the availability of services, events, amenities and other details before you go. For humpbacks closer to home, learn where, when and how to see them in Washington’s waters.
A humpback whale breaches near Maui’s Lahaina Harbor. (Photo by Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures)
Humpback whales in Hawaii’s ‘Au‘au Channel
Indigenous Hawaiian legend says the whale — the sacred koholā — is one of the physical manifestations of Kanaloa, the powerful ocean deity who rules water and wind. That ancient myth comes alive in the briny straits that flow between the islands of Maui, Lāna‘i and Moloka‘i, where colossal humpbacks regularly erupt from the surface of the sea, twisting their 80,000-pound bodies into the air before crashing back down in a self-made tsunami.
Returning to their natal waters between November and May, the whales are drawn to the warmth of the shallow bays and inlets where they can mate, calve and nurse their young with fewer threats from predators. Here, within the largest part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, viewing opportunities abound from ship and shore, mostly along the west coast of Maui, with the season peaking January through March.
Double-deck passenger boats, private charters and catamaran day sails depart from the popular ports of Lahaina and Mā‘alaea and directly from the beach at Kā‘anapali. Enrich the experience with operators offering special features like onboard marine naturalist guides, guaranteed sightings, season passes and underwater hydrophones that capture whale song in real time.
To add adventure, consider cruising on a high-speed super pontoon raft that covers a greater area, with the extra magnifying benefit of being close to sea level. For an incomparable, intimate encounter, book an excursion by kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard — experiences in and on the water are some of the best adventures in Hawaii.
From shore, McGregor Point Lookout boasts unbeatable views across Mā‘alaea Bay, as winter humpbacks often play in the sapphire waters that stretch toward Molokini. For a moderate trek, hit the 3-mile Wailea Coastal Walk near Kihei, or the west end of the more strenuous Lahaina Pali Trail, which picks up on Highway 30 about a quarter mile north of the Pali Tunnel. If a sandy stroll is more your pace, try the north end of Kā‘anapali Beach near Black Rock, one of the best beaches in Hawaii.
Hawaii’s Poipu Beach (Photo courtesy poipubeach.org)
Humpback whales at O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i
Water tours on the outer islands — from rugged jet boats to luxury yachts — offer whale watching in season against the emerald backdrop of the cliffs of Kaua‘i and the red lava fields of the Big Island’s Kohala Coast.
O‘ahu’s beaches offer occasional glimpses of spouts and splashes, but elevation is key. The best bets are the overlooks along the paved Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail at Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline or the highway pullouts near Diamond Head (Lē‘ahi) State Monument.
Watch for whales on Kaua‘i’s south shore from the postcard-quality Poipu Beach with its whale-tail shaped sands. On the north side of the island, the towering Daniel K. Inouye Kīlauea Point Lighthouse offers panoramic vistas.
Finally, when on the shores of Hawai‘I Island, look for humpbacks from two venerated places of culture: The Lapakahi State Historical Park and the ancient ruins of Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, whose name means “temple on the hill of the whale.”
Humpback whales group gulp-feeding in Auke Bay near Juneau, Alaska (Photo by Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures.)
Humpback whales in Alaska
Contrasting with the warm, leisurely allure of the Hawaiian Islands, the humpback’s summer grounds sprawl before the savage beauty of Alaska, where glacier-carved fjords are wedged between mist-filled bays and sounds. Here, icy river waters rush to the sea, gathering rich sediments that nourish the plankton, krill and small schools of baitfish that sustain the whales in a feeding frenzy that peaks May through August.
Humpback action is world-class in Alaska — especially Southeast Alaska — and the best way to see them is by boat. Juneau is the hub of choice, from major cruise lines to tiny tour operators, although Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka offer plenty of options. These ports link visitors to places like Glacier Bay, where diving tail flukes slice through inky waters, or the Inian Islands at the outer edge of Icy Strait, where humpbacks famously pirouette in front of snow-capped mountains.
“They’re the most surface-active of the whales and very charismatic, often slapping their fins and throwing their tails,” says small-ship naturalist Bette Lu Krause.
She’s been helping people watch humpbacks in Alaska and the Inside Passage for nearly 30 years and finds the viewing unsurpassable. It’s here where humpbacks gorge on fish to fuel their migration; they won’t find enough to eat in Hawaii. (Human visitors will similarly find a bounty of wild Alaskan flavors in summer.)
In places like Alaska’s Chatham Strait, humpbacks feast using a cooperative behavior called bubble-net feeding. The technique is taught from one whale to another, passing along one of the most dramatic and fascinating behaviors in the animal kingdom.
It begins when one humpback blows a spiral veil of bubbles to ensnare whole schools of fish, which become mesmerized as another whale emits a haunting underwater call. Caught in this spell of confusion, the fish become easy prey for multiple humpbacks — sometimes a dozen or more — who lunge from below with mouths gaping, their pleated throats stretched to swallow the bounty of their cleverness.
“They’re spectacular,” Krause says. “And it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it again and again, every time a humpback breaches, it’s magnificent. It looks so much like joy, there’s just no way you can witness it and not come away changed for the better.”
Responsible and sustainable whale-watching
All marine mammals are protected under federal law. Never touch, harass or come within 100 yards of a humpback whale. Plan excursions only with licensed tour operators. If you are approached by a whale, remain stationary and wait for it to swim away.
–Written by Lynette Rae McAdams, who was 9 years old when she got in trouble for cutting Flip Nicklin’s photographs out of her father’s National Geographic collection. She’s been watching whales, researching them and writing about them ever since. Her favorite humpback encounter was on Glacier Bay at sunrise during a solo kayak.
–Top photo of a male humpback escorting a female in Maui’s waters by Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures. All humpback whale photos were obtained under National Marine Fisheries Service permits 753, 19225 and 13846.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey, and was updated in January 2021.