The warm and shallow waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are a favorite destination for kohola, the humpback whale. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population return to Hawaii to breed, calve and nurse their young. These whales migrate more than 3,000 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii, then spend the winter frolicking just off our shores from December through May. During this time the whales are fasting, living off the fat they have accumulated during the summer feeding season.
Fully grown males average 13–14 meters (43–46 ft), while the females are slightly larger at 15–16 meters (49–52 ft). They can weigh anywhere from 28 to 33 metric tons. It is believed that the females are larger because they have the higher energy demand of carrying the calf during pregnancy, giving birth and then nursing the calf...all while fasting with nothing to nourish her but her fat deposits. But despite their size, they are among the most acrobatic of all the large whales. They are well known for their fin and tail slapping, spy-hopping and, most spectacular of all, their full body breaching!
Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the long, loud, complex "song" for which the species is famous. There has always been a lively discussion as to the reason for the humpback song. Suggestions include that males use the song to attract females, or to assist in establishing their territories or even as a challenge to other males. Whatever the reason, the humpback song is known to be very complex, is common to all of the whales in a certain area and changes over time.
Kohola have great cultural significance for native Hawaiians. They play a large role in Hawaiian legend, appearing in the Kumulipo, the ancient Hawaiian creation chant. They are also found in several petroglyphs on at least three of the islands. The return of the kohola is considered a sacred homecoming. Humpback whales are born in Hawaiian waters, making them kama'aina or native born. Some native Hawaiians also believe the whales are aumakua, or family guardians, so these gentle giants are treated with great respect.