Can We All Please Calm Down About Hawaii's 'Missing' Whales?

Media reports have been alarming, but scientists say there is nothing to worry about.

It’s true that Hawaii is experiencing a seemingly slow start to its annual humpback whale season.

But are the majestic marine mammals actually “disappearing,” as The Christian Science Monitor suggests?


Nor have they, as Smithsonian magazine wrote, “gone missing.” And despite reports by Tech Times and The Guardian, the whales’ absence has not left scientists “baffled” or “scratching heads.”

Ed Lyman, a response coordinator with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that in fact, “sensational” headlines over the last week left him and his colleagues scratching their heads about how things got so out of hand.

“I don’t remember saying [the whales] were missing,” he said.

Humpback whale female and calf pictured off Hawaii.
Humpback whale female and calf pictured off Hawaii.

Each year between November and May, as many as 10,000 humpback whales return from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the warmer waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth. The annual migration is a highlight for Hawaii residents and tourists, and provides an economic boon for local tour companies.

In recent weeks, however, a lack of spouting, breaching and tail slapping off the coast left many wondering where the beloved giants were. 

I’ve been looking for the last month and have not seen one,” Brian Powers, a Kailua-Kona aerial photographer, told West Hawaii Today.

After a series of alarming news stories, sanctuary superintendent Malia Chow released a statement on Tuesday to allay fears.

“We can’t say that there are lower numbers, just later numbers,” Chow said. “Total numbers would require dedicated research. Anything else is observational or anecdotal.”

Chow added that whales are “being observed daily in growing numbers,” and that Hawaii’s whale season normally peaks in February and March.

“Whales don’t have watches or calendars, so they might not exactly follow human expectations,” Chow said in her statement.

NOAA says that while the humpbacks’ arrival is later than in recent years, it is still in line with long-term historical observations. In recent years, the agency added, whales have arrived early, making a “normal” arrival appear to be late.

Lyman said there are many hypotheses about what may have kept the whales in northern waters a bit longer, including El Nino disrupting feeding patterns, and a boom in the whale population increasing their competition for food.

While we may never know, one thing is for sure, Lyman said: “They’re here now and there will be more soon.”

Also on HuffPost: 

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