Since its creation by Congress 25 years ago, NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has been vital to the protection of humpback whales, being the only place in the United States where these majestic cetaceans reproduce. Scientists estimate that up to 12,000 whales—more than half of the North Pacific humpback population—return to Hawaiian waters from November through May to breed, calve, and nurse their young. No one knows exactly how long humpback whales have been mating and reproducing in the islands' warm, shallow waters, but narrative reports from whalers document seeing them as early as the 1840s.
Marine species observed in the sanctuary include sea turtles, spinner dolphins, a great variety of native shore- and seabirds, and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. But it is the graceful, gargantuan humpback whales, known for their singing, curiosity, and bold athletic moves (such as breaching, lunging, and fin slapping), who tend to "steal the show."
Keep in mind that there's still plenty to see and do in the off-season—Hawaii boasts an average of 271 sunny days each year—and September and October are popular off-peak times to visit. Hawaii is, after all, famous worldwide for its year-round temperate climate, and is a mecca for ocean recreation of every type. Boating, paddlesports, fishing, surfing, snorkeling, and diving can all be enjoyed in the sanctuary. Be sure to brush up on proper ocean etiquette before you hit the water in order to protect and enjoy marine wildlife.
The annual Sanctuary Ocean Count project is held the last Saturday of January, February, and March each year, and is an excellent opportunity for visitors to contribute to humpback whale conservation.
"The Sanctuary Ocean Count is hugely successful due to our dedicated volunteers," says Sanctuary Ocean Count Coordinator Cindy Among-Serrao. "With volunteers from Hawaii and from all over the world, we are able to increase public awareness of humpback whales in the Hawaiian Islands. On the day of each ocean count, volunteers show up eager to learn more about the whales and undertake their monitoring responsibilities, all while enjoying Hawaii's beautiful coastlines."
Visitors to the recently renovated Sanctuary Visitor Center, located on the beach in Kīhei on the south shore of Maui, can learn about the efforts of NOAA, the State of Hawaii, and others to protect humpback whales, monk seals, sea turtles, dolphins, and coral reefs.
Open year-round, the center also features rotating exhibits on Hawaii's history, maritime heritage, and Native Hawaiian culture.
Finally, if you can't visit the sanctuary in person, check out its extensive galleries of photos, videos, maps, wallpapers, artwork, essays, and poetry.
Ocean stewardship is deeply embedded in Native Hawaiian culture. The sanctuary fosters Native Hawaiian culture by educating the public about traditional Hawaiian values, practices, and traditions. An historic Native Hawaiian fishpond, estimated to have been built about 500 years ago, is adjacent to the Sanctuary Visitor Center and provides a natural classroom for a variety of educational activities.
As a travel destination, few places on the planet can compete with the diversity of the National Marine Sanctuary System. This article is part of an ongoing series to highlight what you can see and do at some of our most iconic natural and cultural marine resources. Check out our other sanctuary stories: