Reflections on Hawai’i’s Ocean Inhabitants

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Reflections on Hawai’i’s Ocean Inhabitants

Photo by Kim Steutermann Rogers/

Photo by Kim Steutermann Rogers/

Story by Jan TenBruggencate

A friend new to paddling excitedly recounted one of the joys of being on the water in modern-day Hawai`i.

They had encountered, at the entrance to Nawiliwili Harbor, a mother and calf humpback whale, as well as a pod of dolphins.

The other day, I walked along the coast from Po`ipu to Maha`ulepu, and was accompanied by humpbacks just offshore, traveling parallel to my route.

A few years ago, while I sailed a small sloop between Molokai and Lana`i, at one point I had whales on every point of the compass.

Humpbacks are just a regular part of our lives around the ocean in Hawai`i today. But I have lived here long enough to remember when that wasn’t the case. We spent a lot of time around the ocean when I was a kid on Molokai, but whale sightings back then were not at all common. I don’t have a clear recollection that we were even aware there were whales nearby.

NOAA estimates that in 1966, when the animals were officially protected from international whaling, there were just 1,400 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific. That includes all three major North Pacific populations—the eastern group that winters off Mexico, the western group that winters around the Bonin, Ryukyu and Philippine Islands, and the Central group that comes to Hawai`i.

Today, we have many times that number, just in the Hawaiian group.

There are good stories and bad ones in ocean conservation. Green sea turtles are another good story. I can recall when turtle steaks were on the menu at nice restaurants in Hawai`i, and coming across a turtle in the ocean was an unusual thing.

Today, after four decades of protection, the population may be near 60,000 and we need to dodge turtles as we cavort in Hawaiian waters. There are suggestions they are near the environment’s carrying capacity, and there’s even talk of removing their legal protection.

Ironically, that’s at the same time international numbers of green sea turtles continue to decline.

In an interesting way, turtles and Hawaiian monk seals are similar—they’re doing well in specific areas, and not well in others. Unfortunately, the downward trend in larger areas is outpacing the isolated areas of growth.

While monk seals continue to decline across the entire Hawaiian archipelago, their numbers in the larger Hawaiian Islands are growing. Why are they slowly getting more common around the high islands, but fast becoming less common in the atolls and reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?

Good questions; no great answers. (You can find lots of information about these species in the Protected Resources pages at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office,

Environmental stories tend to be depressing ones, but we can be encouraged by the few, albeit isolated, successes.

Back to humpbacks. The other day, I talked to a friend who lives near Makahuena Point. Folks talk a lot about whale-watching—but she’s into whale-listening.

“On quiet nights, you can hear the whales breathing and slapping their tails,” she said.

By | 2016-11-10T05:42:21+00:00 April 17th, 2013|0 Comments

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