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Wish you were here? A close encounter with Humpback Whales off the Kona Coast

Video and information by Maria Harvey of Captain Zodiac Rafting Expeditions

Hawaii 24/7 Staff

On Thursday (Jan 10) about 1.5 miles off the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, a Captain Zodiac tour with 10 guests and crew had a full grown female humpback whale use the 24-foot zodiac boat as a backscratcher with what they described to be a very angry male Humpback swimming around as well.

With Capt. Colin Cornforth at the wheel, crewmember Maria Carvey recorded the action above and below water using her GoPro camera. The whole encounter lasted about 10-15 minutes.

Zodiac crews report the whale season started off a bit slow, but appears to be in full swing now.

According to NOAA, the males sing complex songs that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard 20 miles away. A male may sing for hours, repeating the song several times. All males in a population sing the same song, but that song continually evolves over time.

In the Pacific, humpbacks migrate seasonally from Alaska to Hawaii, where they typically hang out between November and May. They can complete the 3,000 mile trip in as few as 36 days.

Here’s some more facts and fun about humpback whales from NOAA:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Megaptera
Species: novaeangliae

Species Description
Weight: 25-40 tons (50,000-80,000 lbs; 22,000-36,000 kg); newborns weigh about 1 ton (2,000 lbs; 900 kg)
Length: up to 60 feet (18 m), with females larger than males; newborns are about 15 ft (4.5 m) long
Appearance: Primarily dark grey, with some areas of white
Lifespan: About 50 years
Diet: Tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish; they can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1360 kg) of food per day
Behavior: Breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface

Humpback whales are well known for their long “pectoral” fins, which can be up to 15 feet (4.6 m) in length. Their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big-winged New Englander” as the New England population was the one best known to Europeans. These long fins give them increased maneuverability; they can be used to slow down or even go backwards.

Similar to all baleen whales, adult females are larger than adult males, reaching lengths of up to 60 feet (18 m). Their body coloration is primarily dark grey, but individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly. This variation is so distinctive that the pigmentation pattern on the undersides of their “flukes” is used to identify individual whales, similar to a humans fingerprint.

Humpback whales are the favorite of whale watchers, as they frequently perform aerial displays, such as breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads.

In the summer, humpbacks are found in high latitude feeding grounds such as the Gulf of Maine in the Atlantic and Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific. In the winter, they migrate to calving grounds in subtropical or tropical waters such as the Dominican Republic in the Atlantic and the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. The Arabian Sea humpback, however, does not migrate, remaining in tropical waters all year.

Humpback whales travel great distances during their seasonal migration, the farthest migration of any mammal. The longest recorded migration was 5,160 miles (8,300 km). This trek from Costa Rica to Antarctica was completed by seven animals, including a calf.

During the summer months, humpbacks spend the majority of their time feeding and building up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter. Humpbacks filter feed on tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish and can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1360 kg) of food per day. Several hunting methods involve using air bubbles to herd, corral, or disorient fish. One highly complex variant, called “bubble netting,” is unique to humpbacks. This technique is often performed in groups with defined roles for distracting, scaring, and herding before whales lunge at prey corralled near the surface.

In their wintering grounds, humpback whales congregate and engage in mating activities. Humpbacks are generally “polygynous” with males exhibiting competitive behavior on wintering grounds. Aggressive and antagonistic behaviors include chasing, vocal and bubble displays, horizontal tail thrashing, and rear body thrashing. Males within these groups also make physical contact; striking or surfacing on top of one another. These bouts can cause injuries ranging from bloody scrapes to, in one recorded instance, death.

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