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What are those whales up to?

A Guide to Humpback Whale Behavior

Humpback Pectoral Fin and Fluke

It’s a very exciting time in Hawaii. Here on Maui and aboard Kai Kanani the excitement is building as we reach the peak of whale watching season. At this time whale songs can fill the water and be heard on even the most casual snorkel excursion. And it’s almost impossible to sit on the beach and not see some type of whale action – spouts of the whales as they come up for air, breaches as they jump out of the water, and tail slaps as they smack the surface.

Understanding these actions is a great way to gain insight into the lives of whales. That’s why we’ve put together this quick guide to help our guests and friends better understand why Maui Humpback whales do the things they do.

The Blow – Breathe it all in and love it all out

Fluke, Pec & Blow

The V-shape blow of a Humpback can be seen on the right

The blow or spout is probably the easiest of all Humpback whale behaviors to understand. Whales are mammals – that means that even though they spend a lot of time under water, they must return to the surface to breathe. On average a whale will hold its breath for about 10-15 minutes, though it may decide to stay submerged for up to 50 minutes.

A Humpback whale has two blowholes on top of its head, just like we have two nostrils on the front of ours. When the whale surfaces to breathe it will exhale at about 200 miles per hour (328 km) shooting a mixture of air and water up to 20 feet (6 m) in the air. This spout is one of the most common ways of seeing a Humpback whale. On very calm days you will see these spouts in a V shape since they are exhaling from both blowholes at the same time. If you are ever close to a whale when it blows, remember to hold your breath because most whales could really use a breath mint or two.

The Breach – If you must jump, jump for joy

Humpback breach by Kai Kanani

Humpback Breach by Kai Kanani

When a Humpback whale jumps out of the water it’s called a breach. There are many theories as to why Humpback Whales breach, but nobody knows for sure. One theory is to dislodge barnacles they picked up during their travels. In cold, northern waters barnacles will grow on the whales, but as they travel south to warmer waters these barnacles start to die off. You can imagine that these might become quite itchy and without fingers to scratch the itch, the easiest way to dislodge them would be to jump up and smash their 90,000 lb (40.8 metric ton) bodies against the water.

Another theory is communication. Sound travels extremely well in water and whales might be using this sound conductivity as a way to send messages to other whales. These messages could be that the Humpback whale is healthy and strong, that they’d like other whales to come near, or that they’d prefer some personal space, thank you very much.

Last but not least, a Humpback whale may jump out of the water for the fun of it. They may be literally jumping for joy. And who can blame them? They are in the pristine waters of Maui after all! We all do things just for fun, especially when we are in paradise, and these whales could, too. Often while scanning the horizon you may see whales breaching and not far off see another whale breaching right afterwards. Maybe it’s a competition to see who can make the loudest splash, or everyone just having fun together. Until we can ask these whales why they do this, we’ll just have to guess!

Tail-Slapping – Say hello to my little friend!

Humpback Tail Slap

Humpback Tail Slap

The muscles in a Humpback whale’s tale are the strongest in the world. We often see whales repeatedly slapping their tails on the surface of the water. Sometimes it’s just once, but we have counted a whale slapping its tail over 40 times in a row. Conventional thought is that the tail slap is an aggressive move – you wouldn’t want that coming down on your head! Yet like the breach, the tail slap could be a great way to get rid of barnacles or communicate to other whales, since the sound of a tail slap can be heard for many miles.

Pectoral Slap – Please come visit soon

Humpback Pectoral Slap

Humpback Pectoral Slap

The pectoral fin of the Humpback is the longest of any whale, reaching 15 feet in length. We see whales of both sexes repeatedly slapping their pectoral fins against the water. Whales may either lie on their side and slap one fin, or lie on their back and slap both. This is thought to be a friendly gesture and an invitation for other whales to join them.

Fluke Up Dive – See you later, folks

Humpback Whale Tail

Humpback Whale Tail

Imagine the scene. It’s the peak of whale season. A warm breeze blows across the brilliant blue water and fills the sail of Kai Kanani. Whales are spouting, breaching, tail and pectoral slapping. Our guests are exhilarated, cheering, camera shutters are clicking and the coveted whale tail photo has been captured. Then it’s quiet. You continue to hold your camera ready for the immediate next tail shot and wait and wait. And the wait goes on.

That’s because sometimes when the tail goes up, the head goes down and it means the whale has gone for a deeper dive and will be staying down for a while. This is a good time to drink some water, check your camera settings, or sit back and enjoy the warmth and beauty of Hawaii. But stay ready – that whale can surface at any time and you’ll want to see it.

We Speak Whale – And you can too!

Humpback Inspection

Inspection by a Humpback Whale

Now that you know the names for our common whale behaviors and some of the theories about why our Humpback whales do the things they do, we hope you’ll get even more enjoyment out of your next whale encounter. We especially hope you’ll see them from a Maui beach, or better yet on Kai Kanani with our excellent crew and certified marine naturalists guiding you, into the amazing world of the Humpback whale.