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Some lesser-known facts about Hawaii’s humpback whales

KA MO‘OLELO MOANA

With humpback whale season underway in Maui Nui, keep an eye out for more whale activity in the coming months. The Maui Ocean Center offers a few interesting tidbits about the annual visitors. -- MAUI OCEAN CENTER photo

What better way to breach into the new year than the return of thousands of humpback whales. Embarking on one of the greatest known migrations in the animal kingdom, scores of humpbacks will soon pass through Maui Nui, putting on dramatic displays of power and acrobatics. Humpbacks are popular here, but how well do you know Hawaii’s favorite visitors? Enjoy these lesser-known facts about the humpbacks of Hawaii.

An adult humpback whale grows up to 60 feet in length, weighs up to 40 tons, and can hold 5,000 gallons of water in its mouth, but the opening at the back of its throat is no larger than a grapefruit! While that fact may be tough to swallow (pun intended), humpback whales are filter feeders that engulf millions of tiny prey like crustaceans, krill and herring. This is accomplished by taking in a large volume of water and pushing it out through bristle-like baleen plates to trap its prey.

When looking for humpback activity from shore or boat, we look for large splashes caused by a breach or vertical showers of mist known as a spout. Another slight misconception is that humpbacks expel seawater from their blowhole. When a humpback reaches the surface to breathe, it will contract its muscles around its blowhole to bring in air and mucus. When it exhales, it projects a mix of hot, moist, mucousy air that condensates rapidly with the cooler air temperature. Spouts are simply clouds of hot, snotty air.

As a fellow mammal, humpback whales are warm-blooded vertebrates that breathe air with lungs, give birth to live young, nurse with milk and possess hair. If you look closely, humpbacks have fist-sized tubercles along their jawline and head that contain short, stiff hair follicles. Surrounded by a network of nerve cells, these “whiskers” are believed to work together to serve some form of sensory function, but their true purpose remains a mystery.

Did you know that Lahaina was once a whaling port? In the early 1800s, the arrival of whaling vessels from New England marked the beginning of the 40-year whaling era in the Kingdom of Hawaii. The historic town of Lahaina was a bustling fishing and whaling port favored by sailors for its sunny weather, calm seas and fresh provisions. However, humpback whales were not hunted in Hawaii. Port cities like Lahaina and Honolulu served as staging sites for sperm whale hunting operations in Japan and the North Pacific regions. Remnants of this era can still be seen in museums and historic sites throughout Lahaina.

Whale ivory was highly prized by Hawaiian royalty, but it didn’t come from humpback whales. Ivory is sourced from whale teeth, which humpback whales lack. One theory suggests whale teeth were brought from Polynesia during early voyages or collected on the rare occasion that a toothed whale’s carcass would wash ashore in Hawaii. Whale ivory was often carved into the shape of a tongue and worn as a niho lei palaoa (whale tooth necklace) by Hawaiian alii (royal chiefs). This sacred necklace wielded power, strength and mana, a spiritual energy from their gods and ancestors.

Humpback whales are revered by many for their size, behavior, social bonding and the shroud of mystery that surrounds them. There are many unanswered questions about humpbacks, but that adds fun and wonder to one of Earth’s most majestic animals.

For a unique encounter, visit us at the Maui Ocean Center to learn about humpbacks in our new Humpbacks of Hawai’i exhibit hall and catch a life-sized, virtual humpback encounter in our Sphere theater. However you choose to celebrate humpback season in Hawaii, do so safely and responsibly. For more information, visit mauioceancenter.com.

* Evan Pascual is the marketing and public relations coordinator at Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “the Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.

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