With the arrival of the winter season in December the humpback whales, having summered in Alaska and the Bering Sea, return to Maui’s waters to breed, calf, and tend their young. By late May most have departed. This endangered species is estimated to number fewer than 1500 in the North Pacific region.

Once you’ve seen them, particularly close-range from the deck of a whale watch cruise boat, you can understand why these gentle giants are so fascinating. A 40-ton adult breaches when it comes bursting out of the water head first. Sentinel whales slap their tales, the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom, on the ocean surface to warn all about the incipient birth of a 15-foot, two-ton infant. Traveling around Maui’s coastal waters, these playful, air-breathing mammals remind us of the unbelievable variety of natural creatures with which we share our planet Earth.

Maui is a center for observational whale studies through the scientific work of Deborah and Mark Ferrari, who for the last 15 years have developed photographic techniques to identify individual whales by lip groove and fluke (tail) markings as unique as fingerprints. Research continues as to what the song of the male whale singing might signify.