Ka Mo‘olelo Moana: Humpbacks captivate us with their mystery and acrobatics

January signals the end of the hectic holiday season and the beginning of a fresh New Year.

Here in the islands, it also means the homecoming of thousands of humpback whales. In Hawaii, they’re called kohola; to science, they are Megaptera novaeangliae, meaning big-winged New Englander. But to most, they are known simply as humpback whales.

Of all great whales, this species is the most widely seen because they prefer shallower coastal waters – regions typically densely populated by people. They are also huge, growing to approximately 50 feet long. Throughout time, people have worshiped, hunted and studied this great whale making it the most well-known.

Modern-day research of this leviathan began with the very people hunting them along the Atlantic seaboard during the 17th and 18th centuries. Whaling records contained unassuming notations about size and anatomy. In 1756, the humpback whale species was officially inducted into the scientific community as baleine de la Nouvelle Angleterre; French for whale of New England.

Discoveries of other whale species made it clear that the humpback, with 18-foot-long pectoral fins, was a unique whale. So in 1846, the humpback was given its own genus: Megaptera, meaning “big-winged.” It was not until 1932, after a handful of name changes, that science finally settled on the current name for the humpback whale: Megaptera novaeangliae.

Today we know there are separate populations of humpback whales living in all the major oceans, migrating north and south between the frigid, food-rich waters during the warm summer months and the tropical food-poor waters during the cold winter months. This round-trip journey is known to exceed 6,000 miles, making it the longest migration of any mammal.

Tracking individuals over great distances is challenging, but researchers have used photography to document the black-and-white pattern on the whale’s tail fluke. Ongoing research shows that these whales migrate primarily within the hemispheric region they are born, resulting in genetic contrasts among each population. One noticeable difference is that humpback whales in the southern hemisphere usually have more white on their body in comparison to the typically darker-pigmented northern hemisphere whales.

All humpback whales make sounds, but in the tropics the males will sing a territorial and impressive tune. If you have been fortunate enough to hear the eerie chirps, squeaks, grunts, and low moans of the humpback whale’s irregular song, then you know you can’t help but wonder how they do it. Positioned well below the surface, head down and motionless in what looks like intense concentration, they force air through cavities in their massive head. This is done with such precision that they will repeat their approximately 15-minute song two to three times before resurfacing to breathe.

Humpback whales also have a myriad of surface behaviors that make them attractive objects for spectators. In Hawaii, we see behaviors like competition pods, breaching and logging. Competition pods are ultimately a display of dominance by pushing, punching and posturing within a group of males to impress a female. Magnificent breaching displays help the animal remove dead skin and keep irritating parasites from accumulating. With lungs the size of a small car, the whales can hold their breath for as long as an hour when resting. A whale resting motionlessly at the surface looks like a log and is therefore referred to as a “logger.”

No matter what you call them: kohola, Megaptera novaeangliae or humpback whales, they will continue to captivate us with their mystery and acrobatics. During the next few months, look and listen for these incredible leviathans of the deep and respectfully welcome them home.

* Erin Iberg is the community education manager at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.