What happened to Hawaii's missing whales?

The archipelago is normally teeming with humpback whales, which breed in its warm waters. But this year, they seem to be absent.

Reed Saxon/AP/File
A humpback whale leaps out of the water in what is called breaching, as viewed from a whale watching boat operated by the Pacific Whale Foundation in the channel off Maui in Hawaii in 2005. Humpback whales have been missing off the coast of Hawaii, where many come to breed each year.

The annual arrival of humpback whales off the coast of Hawaii is a virtual certainty, but the animals are conspicuously absent this year.

In a year that has seen abnormal oceanic patterns that have brought tropical fish to the coast of California along with heavy rains, the disappearance of the humpback is rousing concerns.

It means big losses for a tourism industry that relies on the whales’ annual migration to the Hawaii’s warm waters, where roughly 10,000 humpbacks come to breed each year.

The whales migrate from the icier waters of Alaska, while the first seasonal sightings trickle in by October, according to the Pacific Whale Foundation. The organization even guarantees sightings from early November to mid-May.

Brought to the edge of extinction in the early 1990s by commercial whale hunting, the humpback whale has bounced back, with its population today standing at about 21,000, about half of which travel to the islands, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Hawaii is the only area in the United States where Humpbacks “mate, calve, and nurse their young,” the organization said. The animals can grow up to 45 feet long, weigh up to 50 tons and have life spans of about fifty years.

In other words, they’re hard to miss. But so far, though, only a handful has been spotted.

Theories abound among researchers, some of whom posit that the delay may simply be caused by El Niño, which has stirred warmer-than-usual waters into the Pacific Ocean, causing a interruption to the whale’s migratory path along with a host of other anomalies.

NASA last month noted that 2015 had already shaped up to be a robust El Niño year, documented by satellite imagery that indicates high sea surface heights in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon that takes place with warmer ocean temperatures.

El Niño can happen when changes to the usual westerly winds cause the ocean to warm, NASA said.

“El Niño 2015 has already created weather chaos around the world. Over the next few months, forecasters expect the United States to feel its impacts as well,” NASA notes. 

El Niño may also have influenced the humpback whales’ food supplies, which some surmise has lingered longer up north because of the warmer waters.

Ed Lyman, a marine biologist for the sanctuary, said the species' growing populations also might have delayed the animals’ return.

"With more animals, they're competing against each other for that food resource,” he said. “And it takes an energy of reserve to make that long migration over 2,000 miles.

Researchers may have a better idea of what took place when they conduct an annual humpback whale count starting in late-January.

"They don't necessarily show up in the same place at the same time every year," said Jeff Walters, who formerly co-managed the whale sanctuary. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to What happened to Hawaii's missing whales?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today