by: Paul Drewes
(KHNL) - The annual migration of humpback whales to Hawaii each winter and spring has become one of our state's most anticipated annual events.
The humpbacks were hunted to the brink of extinction during whaling days, but their numbers have been increasing roughly seven percent each year over the past decade.
The humpback whales that visit our waters every year are not only big.
"we are going to be looking for an animal the size of a school bus weighing close to 80,000 pounds"
These massive mammals are also a big draw.
"oh, look! another tail!"
Whale watching boats bring thousands of visitors up close to these creatures of the sea.
"I think it helps them develop a love of the whales, that's something they can take home with them." says Povi Gonzales, a whale expert.
In addition to seeing more whales you're also seeing more naturalists and experts on board whale watching ships to explain whale behavior and biology.
We're learning more about these majestic mammals that normally spend most of their time in shallow waters. Scientists have seen them dive to nearly a thousand feet and now we also have a good idea of just how many there are.
"Currently we think there are 10-12 thousand humpback whales coming to Hawaii to mate and nurse their young." says Greg Kaufman with the Pacific Whale Foundation.
The whales' breeding season is growing longer too, some humpbacks now arrive in October, others stay into June, two months longer than in decades past.
We're also seeing a greater variety of whales.
"The new presence of other species of whales, sperm whales, sei whales, fin whales which are slightly smaller than blue whales." adds Kaufman.
More whales and more watchers also means more hazards; like entanglement with ocean debris or collisions with boats. "Now the likelihood of them being struck by boats has increased."
The sight of whales playing in our waters is encouraging, but some worry, as the population recovers, these whales could be taken off the endangered species list someday. "At some point you are going to get pre-whaling stock numbers so the question is when do you de-list?"
Hawaii's humpback population is estimated to be at half the level before whaling began.