Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures
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Guide to America's National Marine Sanctuaries

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Voyage to Kure
Sharks at Risk
The Gray Whale Obstacle Course

Return to the Amazon
Sea Ghosts: Belugas
Call of the Killer Whale

Humpback Whale

Featured Creature
Humpback Whale

Humpbacks are large and grayish, with distinctive long flippers and a hump in front of the small dorsal (back) fin. Adult whales are around 50 feet long, about the length of a bus, and their life expectancy may be up to 80 years. Humpbacks are baleen whales, a suborder of whales that have no teeth but instead filter their food through two plates of baleen. Baleen is a substance that looks somewhat like a comb and is made of a bony but elastic material called keratin, which is also found in human hair and nails. Humpback whales consume krill, anchovies, cod, sardines, mackerel, capelin and other sorts of schooling fish. They also sometimes feed by making "bubble nets" around their prey. In this group-feeding technique, several whales swim in a circle around their prey and blow bubbles through their blow holes. The fish are trapped in the center of the "net."

The most active of the baleen whale species, humpbacks do a lot of flipper and fluke slapping and can often be seen breaching, or leaping out of the water. Male humpback whales are known for their music. They make the longest and most complex sounds found in the animal kingdom, with songs lasting up to 20 minutes. They sometimes repeat these songs for hours. Researchers are unsure why humpback whales sing, although they speculate that the songs are meant to attract females or to notify other whales that they are in the area. Learn more about this creature at the Encyclopedia of the Sanctuary (at

Hawai'ian Islands Humpback Whale
National Marine Sanctuary

Official Web Site (at
Three-dimensional Sanctuary Map (at
Encyclopedia of the Sanctuary (at
Listen to humpback vocalizations (mp3)

The Hawai'ian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was designated by Congress in 1992, 10 years after NOAA first stated the need for such a sanctuary. Both during and after the designation process, the sanctuary met a mixed response from the local community. Many people feared that a marine sanctuary would impose additional restrictions on fishing and vessel traffic. Assured that the sanctuary would focus primarily on new education and research programs, incorporate pre-existing regulations for the protection of humpback whales and their habitat, and allow for the state to serve with NOAA as the sanctuary's co-manager, Hawai'i Governor Benjamin Cayetano formally approved of the sanctuary in state waters in 1997. The state partnership was reauthorized in 2002.

What's Underwater
The waters around the main Hawai'ian islands are one of the world's most important habitats for the endangered humpback whale. Nearly two-thirds of the entire North Pacific population of humpback whales migrates to Hawai'i each winter for breeding, calving and nursing -- activities critical to the survival of their species. The sanctuary is the only place in the United States where this happens. Interestingly, it's believed that the humpback whale first arrived in Hawai'i less than 200 years ago. The first reports from whalers date back to the 1840s, and there is little evidence to substantiate an earlier presence. The sanctuary is also home to a fascinating array of marine animals, corals and plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.


Whale Watching
Boat tours and whale-watching cruises are a popular way to catch sight of the humpback whales in the sanctuary, but it's often quite easy to see the animals from the shore. The sanctuary provides a guide to the whales' behaviors that visitors may see at

Wildlife Watching
The Hawai'i Watchable Wildlife Project is a statewide network of 31 viewing sites, a road-signage program to direct travelers to the viewing locations, and a viewing guide and Web site to enhance visitors' experience and encourage responsible and sustainable viewing behavior. For more information on the viewing guide, with technical information provided by sanctuary staff, visit

Sanctuary Headquarters
The sanctuary headquarters in Kihei, Maui, offers both scenic beauty and ecological significance. Visitors will discover a living classroom, with many opportunities to enjoy the simple pleasures of nature watching. During winter, humpback whales are seen on the horizon, with frequent activity close to shore. The deck of the main building provides a viewscope for observing the ever-changing scene along Maui's coastline.

Inside the Education Center, exhibits and artifacts illustrate the significance of humpback whales from the perspectives of both science and culture. Open during weekdays, the center also features a marine science library, information for adults and children, and a corps of dedicated volunteers, who are well versed in whale facts and legends. The stone walls of Ko'ie'ie, an intricately constructed fishpond, are a record of the kinship that native Hawai'ians had with the sea when they inhabited the area long ago.


Research Project
The sanctuary conducts and supports research leading to a better understanding of humpback whales, with a goal of using the knowledge gained to ensure their continued protection. The sanctuary is a participant in the Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH) project, an international effort to understand the population structure of humpback whales across the North Pacific and to assess the status and trends of this population as well as potential human impacts. It's the most comprehensive whale study ever attempted.

Challenges Facing the Sanctuary

  • Entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear is a growing problem for marine mammals. Preliminary studies suggest that the entanglement rate of humpbacks visiting Hawai'ian waters may be as high as 78 percent.
  • Collisions of vessels and whales can result in serious injury to both humans and whales.
  • Acoustic disturbance due to dredging, blasting, shipping, recreation, testing and other activities may affect humpback whales and their behavior.
  • Habitat is critical for the conservation and health of humpback whales. Any activity that can lead to poor water quality may affect the habitat and ecosystem of the humpback whale.
  • Ocean literacy among the public -- both children and adults -- is critical to ensuring that the ocean is protected for future generations.

Success Stories

  • Prohibits unauthorized disturbances of humpback whales and their habitat, including prohibiting approaches to humpback whales within 100 yards by sea or 1,000 feet by air.
  • Served as the coordinating partner and participant in the SPLASH research project, an international effort to understand the population structure of humpback whales across the North Pacific and to assess the status and trends of this population as well as potential human impacts.
  • Increased community awareness of humpback whales and other protected marine species through efforts such as the Sanctuary Ocean Count project.
  • Hosted a Vessel Collision Avoidance Workshop in 2003 to address issues and develop recommendations for protecting whales.
  • Hosted the International Marine Debris Conference in 2000 to connect stakeholders and develop plans to address the issue of marine debris.
  • Leads Hawai'i's large whale-disentanglement team, responding to whales with life-threatening entanglements in marine debris and fishing gear.