Humpback whales in Hawai‘i

humpback whale, breach, Hawaii, Maui, Megaptera, whale

Although the focus of our research in Hawaiian waters is on odontocetes, the first funding for what became our long-term study was for humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) research, a small grant from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in 2000, to study the diving behavior of this species. Since then, we’ve been recording information on all humpback whale encounters, passing identification photos on to happywhale so they are available for other researchers, recording inter-specific interactions, documenting injuries, and occasionally collecting biopsy samples to contribute to other research efforts.

humpback whale, pilot whale, Hawaii, Kauai, Megaptera, whale

While humpbacks spend most of their time while in Hawaiian waters in relatively shallow (<200 m) areas, we do occasionally see them in deeper waters, particularly in the Kaulakahi Channel between Ni‘ihau and Kaua‘i, and when in these deeper waters we do see them interacting with deeper-water species like short-finned pilot whales. We’ve documented humpback whales associating with other species in almost a quarter of encounters, including seven different species of odontocetes. The most frequent associations are with bottlenose dolphins (19 encounters), not surprising given the shallow-water habits of bottlenose dolphins, but we’ve also seen them with rough-toothed dolphins (10 sightings), short-finned pilot whales (10 sightings), spinner dolphins (four sightings), false killer whales (twice), melon-headed whales (twice), and pantropical spotted dolphins (once).

humpback whale, bottlenose dolphin, Megaptera, Tursiops, inter-species interaction,, Hawaii, Kauai

Most of the multi-species interactions we see appear to be playful in nature, particularly when they involve juvenile humpback whales. In the photo above a bottelnose dolphin is surfacing next to the head of a juvenile humpback, which seemed to be quite engaged in the interaction.

humpback whale, ship strike, prop wound, Hawaii, Kauai

We occasionally document evidence of vessel trikes, such as this humpback whales seen off Kaua‘i in February 2020.

humpback whale, Black-footed Albatross, Hawaii, Kauai, Megaptera, whale, albatross
Some references on our work with humpbacks in Hawaiian waters are below, and check out the west coast project web page for more information on this species.

  • Baird, R.W., D. Cholewiak, D.L. Webster, G.S. Schorr, S.D. Mahaffy, C. Curtice, J. Harrison and S.M. Van Parijs. 2015. Biologically important areas for cetaceans within U.S. waters – Hawai‘i region. Aquatic Mammals 41:54-64. Download PDF copy – for a copy of the issue introduction and literature cited click here
  • Baird, R.W., A.D. Ligon and S.K. Hooker. 2000. Sub-surface and night-time behavior of humpback whales off Maui, Hawaii: a preliminary report. Report prepared under Contract #40ABNC050729 from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Kihei, HI, to the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Paia, HI. Download PDF copy

Updated November 2021.

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Got photos? We have photo-ID catalogs for several Hawaiian cetacean species! If you have photos that you would be willing to share, you can learn how to submit those to us at this link, or contact us at