National Geographic : 2007 Jan
by Douglas H. Chadwick photographs by Flip Nicklin Remember when the biggest animals in the world seemed in danger of vanishing? It was during the 1960s and '70s, when commercial hunting had made many of the great whale species so scarce it looked as if the world would be robbed of an entire dimension of wonder. It wasn't. If you visit the 'Au'au Channel between the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Lana'i in winter today, you'll find the ocean grown chunky with titans. Humpback whales that weigh as much as 45 tons rise and spout everywhere, roll in spirals, slap the surface with fins or tail flukes. They leap with their tails almost clearing the surface while chins reach 40 feet into the sky, then fall back in a KER WHOMP!that carries for miles. Reduced to a few thousand worldwide, hump backs began to rebound after an international ban on killing them went into effect in the 1960s. 76 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2007 A soon-to-be completed three-year census dubbed SPLASH, the largest, most intensive humpback whale survey ever undertaken, could put the North Pacific population alone at more than 10,000 and possibly as many as 25,000. Half to two-thirds of those whales gather around Hawaii from late November into May, especially here in the channel and other parts of the 1,370-square-mile Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. hanging out in hawaii Head down, a female (above) floats motionless, one of a breathholding pair. Another pair rises in a parallel pas de deux (opposite). In winter a majority of North Pacific humpbacks gather in Hawaiian waters to give birth and mate.