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Whales of Hawai’i

The Hawaiian Island chain is the most remote in the world. We have nothing but vast amounts of ocean water between us and the nearest land mass. We also have some of the deepest waters in the world. This equation makes for some impressive whale sightings, all year long. 

Most of you are aware that we are fortunate enough to have the beautiful humpback whales migrate here from Alaska every winter. Why would they come all the way down here? December – April is their mating season, and they rely on warmer waters to mate and give birth. (I mean, can you imagine trying to do either in the frigid Alaskan waters?! I think not!) Unfortunately for the humpback, Hawaiian waters are free of their main source of food, krill. This means the whales only stay here long enough to “take care of business” and then head back to their favorite buffet up north.

What you may not know is that Hawai’i is home to over a dozen other whale species, some which are full time residents. Here are the ones we most commonly see.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins (yes, they are classified as whales) are a nocturnal cetacean that hunt off shore at night time, and use our calm bays and shorelines to rest during the day. This makes them the most frequently sighted whale in our waters. They are still wild animals though, so their sightings are never a guarantee! Spinners travel in pods whose sizes vary typically from 10-150 individuals. Occasionally we will see a “super pod” which can be as many as 1000 strong!  Spinners are a smaller species usually 4-7 ft in length, with babies being the adorable size of a pro football.

Playful Bottlenose DolphinCommon bottlenose dolphins are also sighted here, although not as regularly. They don’t have the set schedule that the spinner dolphin has so their location is harder to predict. Bottlenose dolphins tend to travel in small family pods consisting of 3-12 individuals, and are 6-13 ft in length.



Short-Finned Pilot WhalesShort-finned Pilot whales are fun to look for, and chances are that your captain will take you a couple miles offshore to look for them. Sightings aren’t overly high, but when they are spotted it’s a breathtaking experience. They are found in pods ranging from 5-500 individuals, usually hard to pinpoint due to their long breath holds. Pilot whales vary from 6-18 ft in length, and are commonly followed by the beautiful oceanic white tip shark. Pilot whales are unable to digest certain parts of their lunch, so they tend to regurgitate. That is considered a delicacy to the shark most likely out of pure laziness.

Less common but equally as cool whale sightings include:

  • False killer whales (which look nothing like Orcas, and whose name bothers me terribly.)
  • Melon-headed whales (whose head looks more like a melon than the above looks like an Orca.)
  • Sperm whales (nope, not going there.)
  • Pygmy and Dwarf Sperm whales (I don’t know who names these. Terrible description!)
  • Pygmy killer whales (who look nothing like false killers OR regular killers. Maybe it’s the small  handcuffs and black and white striped outfit they like to wear?)
  • And finally, my FAVORITE! Beaked whales. Why are they my favorite? Beaked whales are elusive. I had only heard of them for years, missing sightings by moments. Beaked whales rarely surface, and when they do it’s for seconds at a time, before plunging back down into the darkness. I have been lucky in the past couple years to have unprecedented experiences with these beauties though, being the only witness (along with my passengers) to unique behaviors not often recorded. This is why they are my favorite. They have finally opened up to me, accepting me into their pod. Ok maybe I’m taking this a little too far, but I do go absolutely nutso when I see them. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be there with me, wondering, “What happened and why is my captain losing her mind?” I can only hope so, for your sake.