In Whales We Trust


Story by Lara McGlashan

whale breach
Photo by Jeffrey Whittingham

Winter on Maui is a special time, when the ocean fills with humpback whales. Every year, as many as 14,000 whales travel 3,000 miles from the northern waters around Alaska to the breeding and calving grounds around Hawai‘i, a trip which takes six to eight weeks. Even though they’ve (likely) been making this journey for thousands of years, we still know relatively little about humpbacks. Their communication, social behavior, migration patterns and reproductive habits are all vague and mysterious, and in fact, no human being has ever witnessed the birth of a humpback calf — nor the romantic encounter that produces said calf some 11 months later.

The goal of Whale Trust Maui is to demystify the species through comprehensive research. “Even though humpbacks are the most accessible to us, there is so much we still don’t understand,” says Meagan Jones, Ph.D., co-founder of the nonprofit along with researcher Jim Darling, Ph.D., and renowned nature photographer Flip Nicklin. “Our research focuses on social behavior and communication, and what’s important for them to navigate the world today. We have to understand humpback behavior before we can understand how to protect them in the ever-changing ocean environment.”

While 14,000 might sound like a lot of visiting cetaceans, it only comprises about 50 percent of the total number of humpbacks found in northern waters. “All humpbacks travel between higher-latitude feeding grounds and lower-latitude breeding grounds,” says Jones. “Half of them come to Maui, but new research indicates that the rest spread out and migrate to Asia, Japan and Mexico.”

wave glider
Wave glider

Helping the Whale Trust researchers with this newest finding is an unmanned surface robot called the Wave Glider. This surfboard-sized tool is powered by wave- and solar-energy. It’s built to survive hurricanes and rough ocean conditions and can be at sea for months at a time. “The Wave Glider gives us real-time ocean data from inaccessible locations,” says Jones. “It is outfitted with a video camera and a hydrophone, and we have thousands of hours of whale sounds that were captured on its last trip in 2021 that we’ll use to help determine humpback distribution and migration patterns.”

Humpback song is among the most complex in the ocean, and is a major focus of Whale Trust research. “All humpback whales sing the same version of a song at any given time,” says Jones. “It is primarily sung by males during breeding time, and it gradually changes over the course of months or even years by a few sounds. For example, the last song we record on Maui this season will very likely be the same song the whales sing when they arrive again next year.”

Photo by Flip Nicklin

And while it seems logical that whale song would be used to attract a mate, singers actually attract other males. “Whales are so complicated, but that’s what makes them fascinating,” says Jones.

Here are some more fun humpback facts:

  • Female humpbacks are larger than males.
  • Humpbacks swim about three to five miles per hour, but can “sprint” up to 20 miles per hour.
  • The Hawaiian name for a humpback whale is koholā.
  • A humpback calf stays with its mother for more than a year.
  • A calf can drink up to 100 gallons of milk each day and can gain up to four pounds in an hour!
  • It is illegal to come within 100 yards of a humpback whale.

Whale Tales Every year, Whale Trust Maui hosts Whale Tales, a fundraising event where speakers, scientists and researchers share their latest findings with the public. “This year we will again host a two-day streaming virtual event for people of all ages,” says Jones. “All profits from ticket sales go to support whale research.” For more information on Whale Tales 2022, visit or call 808.572.5700.


maui ocean center
Maui Ocean Center Humpbacks of Hawai‘i Exhibit and Sphere

Maui Ocean Center Humpbacks of Hawaii Exhibit and Sphere
Come eye-to-eye with humpback whales — without getting wet! A laser projector casts a nearly 360-degree image inside the 58-foot-diameter spherical theater. With this 3D experience, you’ll feel like you’re actually underwater, swimming and playing alongside these gentle giants of the deep. 192 Māalaea Rd., Mā‘alaea | | 808.270.7000 | IG/FB @mauioceancenter

Whale Tales 2022 Photo Expeditions
These intimate 10-person workshops led by professional photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins teach you how to photograph nature with humpback whales as your muse. Each expedition includes five private whale watches, daily transportation, catered breakfasts and a welcome dinner with National Geographic contributing photographer Flip Nicklin. Trips on Maui run from February 14 to 17, and February 20 to 23, 2022. P.O. Box 243, Makawao | | 808.572.5700 | IG/FB @whaletalesorg

Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures
Led by certified marine naturalists, these tours are educational as well as fun. Learn about the behavior and habits of humpback whales and use a hydrophone to hear them singing to one another underwater. Whale sightings guaranteed — or sail for free another day! 300 Māalaea Rd., Mā‘alaea | | 808.249.8811 | IG/FB @pacificwhalefoundation

Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center
This brand new 5,000-square-foot venue features more than 30 interactive exhibits about Maui’s native wildlife and a Kids’ Zone where keiki (children) can repurpose debris found in the ocean to create art. A portion of the proceeds from entry fees and retail shop sales benefits the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. Whalers Village, 2435 Kā‘anapali Pkwy., Kā‘anapali | | IG/FB @hawaiiwildlifediscoverycenter

UFO Whale Watch Tours
Collect your friends and family and take a private whale-watch tour on UFO’s 28-foot, 12-passenger speedboat. And this is a tour you can feel good about: UFO converted its entire fleet to run on ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, reducing the particulate matter and other pollutants released into the environment. Whalers Village, 2435 Kā‘anapali Pkwy., Kā‘anapali | | 800.359.4836 | IG/FB @ufoparasail


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