The Koholā (humpback whale) was well known to the early Hawaiians. In the Kumulipo chant – the Hawaiian chant of creation – the Second Era speaks of the birth of the whale: “Hanau ka palaoa noho I kai” – born is the whale living in the ocean.
The presence of the koholā in Hawaiian waters is evidenced in Hawai‘i’s oral and written history through petroglyphs, legends, legendary place names and artifacts.
Kapoukahi, a powerful kahuna from Kaua‘i, prophesized that war would end if Kamehameha I constructed a heiau dedicated to the war god Ku at Pu‘ukoholā.
In 1791, Keoua, Kamehameha’s cousin, was slain at Pu‘ukoholā, an event that according to prophesy, led to the conquest and consolidation of the islands under the rule of Kamehameha I.
The warm waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands are breeding, calving and nursing areas for humpback whales and is one of the world’s most important habitats for them.
At the start of the 20th century, the global population of humpbacks was depleted by the commercial whaling industry.
In 1973, the United States government made it illegal to hunt, harm or disturb humpback whales. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the humpback whale was listed as endangered and remains so to this day.
Protection of this important ecological habitat was necessary for the long-term recovery of the North Pacific humpback whale population.
In 1992, Congress enacted the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, recognizing the important role that the Hawaiian Islands play in the preservation and long-term vitality of the endangered humpback whale.
The Sanctuary is jointly managed in an equal partnership in the oversight of sanctuary operations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Hawai‘i.
The cooperative agreement, signed in 1998, states that NOAA and the State of Hawai’i “shall manage the sanctuary through a cooperative partnership and consult on all management activities throughout the sanctuary.”
The State duties in the agreement are the responsibility of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR;) we had a great working relationship with NOAA.
NOAA and the State of Hawai’i determined that co-managing a sanctuary would provide additional beneficial resources and expertise to enhance the protection of humpback whales and their habitat, rather than do things on our own.
The sanctuary conducts and supports humpback whale research to increase scientific knowledge about the North Pacific humpback whale population and its habitat.
Research efforts include photo identification, population, birth and mortality rates and whale behavior.
Like our fingerprints, whale flukes (tail fins) are unique with distinctive patches and markings for each whale. Researchers use the irregularities and differences of a whale’s fluke to distinguish between individual whales.
A Sanctuary advisory council assists the Sanctuary staff by providing advice and recommendations to the Sanctuary personnel.
In the summer, humpbacks are found in high latitude feeding grounds in Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific where they spend the majority of the time feeding and building up blubber that they live off of in the winter.
From December to late-May, the humpback whales migrate to calving grounds in Hawaiian waters. We are getting near the end of “whale season.”
Along the coastlines of the Hawaiian Islands, the whales cause pause as travelers stop to watch their antics in the ocean.
I was fortunate, as Director of DLNR, to participate in several tours and activities with Sanctuary personnel (from NOAA and DLNR.) On one occasion, that included a tour off Maui with then-Commerce Secretary Gutierrez.