HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - If you read national headlines Monday about the annual winter migration of humpback whales to Hawaii, you might have walked away fairly concerned.
"Hawaii's humpback whales have gone missing," read one Smithsonian magazine article.
The Christian Science Monitor's story had this headline: "What happened to Hawaii's missing whales?"
The problem, say experts, is that the whales were never missing. They were just a little slow to get here compared to recent years, which isn't all that unusual.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aren't quite sure how their original message – the whales are taking their time – turned into what The Guardian called a "baffling mystery."
And the good news: Tour operators reported seeing an influx of whales in Hawaii waters last week.
"Sightings are increasing. There are lots of whales," said Ed Lyman, a Maui-based resource protection specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Lyman said it's true that the whales were slow to get to Hawaii from Alaska for their annual migration. Especially in early December, he said, their numbers seemed a bit low compared to previous years.
But he stressed that year-to-year variations in the migration aren't that unusual.
"We knew they were going to come," he said. "It varies each and every year."
The sanctuary estimates that as many as 10,000 humpback whales use Hawaiian waters as their principle "wintering ground," migrating here to mate, calve and nurse their young. The population of North Pacific humpback whales is now estimated at 21,000, up from about 6,000 in the 1990s. (The population has rebounded so spectacularly, there's now talk of taking them off the endangered species list.)
The national headlines about Hawaii's "missing" humpback whales caused so much concern that the sanctuary's superintendent, Malia Chow, issued a statement Tuesday to clarify misconceptions.
While the whales are a little later than in the recent past, she said, this year's arrivals appear to be in keeping with long-term historic observations.
She also pointed out that whale season in Hawaii is November to May, with a peak in February and March. "Whales don't have watches or calendars, so they might not exactly follow human expectations," Chow said, in the statement.
Lyman pointed out that whale counts are also an imprecise science. Researchers rely on tour guides and volunteers to report sightings. That's why he can't make any conclusions about why the whales are a little later this year compared to the recent past.
"We don't have the data," he said. "There are so many unknowns. Things are certainly changing (in the environment), but you can't say what those particular changes mean."
See video shot Tuesday of humpback whales off the Big Island: