Ka Mo‘olelo Moana: Twenty four species of whales swim in Hawaii’s waters

At this very moment, there could be nearly 10,000 humpback whales cruising around the coastal waters here in Hawaii, and if you spend any time gazing out toward the horizon there’s a good chance you’ll see one.

Members of this species, famous for their acrobatics and haunting vocalizations, unintentionally captivates us, and we forget that there are other whales here too. There are actually 77 other cetacean (that is, whale and dolphin) species in the world, of which 24, including the humpback, have been documented in Hawaiian waters.

The second most commonly seen cetacean in Hawaii could be the slender 4- to 7-foot, 100- to 150-pound, tri-colored Hawaiian spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris). These creatures congregate in large pods of up to 1,000 individuals and are well-known for their playful behavior commonly seen by people. They have a unique ability to repeatedly spin on an axis like a ballerina, spinning up to seven rotations in a single leap. Just like humans with flushed skin after physical exertion, the spinner dolphin’s white belly turns rosy pink the more they spin.

More elusive and peculiar looking is the 15- to 20-foot long Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris). With a dorsal fin positioned closer to the tail than the head and a scarcity of surface behavior, this whale is difficult to find. The species name “densirostris” is Latin for “dense beak” and males have two large teeth that grow up from the lower jaw resembling tusks on a wild boar. The Blainville’s beaked whale is so elusive and understudied, that we still don’t know much about their biology or population and what is known about this whale is mainly from strandings.

Another mysterious whale here in Hawaii is the false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens), named for its physical resemblance to the killer whale (Orcinus orca). These cetaceans attack smaller dolphins. At 15- to 20-feet long, they look like a black torpedo and typically travel in pods with 10 to 20 other individuals. Their common name can be deceiving because they are really part of the taxonomic family delphinidae, same as the killer whale and spinner dolphin. These dolphins hunt larger fish like tuna and jack and will launch into the air, captured fish in mouth, in a dramatic hunting maneuver. However, as long as you are not their prey, false killer whales are not considered aggressive animals and will share food, even offering their catch to people. Sadly, in 2012 the Hawaiian population was added to the endangered species list because their population size was estimated to be only a few hundred.

Found in much deeper Hawaiian waters are two real leviathans: the bulbous headed sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and the largest animal ever to have existed, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale reaching lengths of about 50 feet and was named for the massive spermaceti organ in its head. Early biologists thought that this was part of the whale’s reproductive anatomy but nowadays it is thought that the organ helps with hunting in the dark, thousands of feet down. In contrast, the blue whale, exceeding 100 feet in length, is a filter-feeding baleen whale and feeds mainly on the small nutrient dense krill.

This winter, as you scan the horizon you will most likely see the humpback whales, but keep in mind all the other species of whales that are also cruising around out there. Unlike the charismatic humpback whale, many of the 24 species of whales here in Hawaii are here all year long.

* 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.