KILAUEA — It was a Wednesday morning in mid-October when Jenifer Waipa woke up thinking that the day could be magical.
It turned out to be first day humpback whales being spotted off the coast of Kilauea Point.
“I knew Maui had already been seeing whales and I had a feeling, just from the weather that morning, that it would likely be that day,” said Jennifer Waipa, supervisor of the refuge.
Every year the volunteers and staff members out at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge hold a little contest amongst themselves, vying for first sight of a breach or a tail— anything that points to the arrival of the first whales of the season.
This year it was Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer John Hunt who took the trophy, but a few spouts have been spotted off Kauai already this season.
“As it turned out, another volunteer of mine, Tana Ball, sent me an email later that morning saying she’d spotted one outside her place in Kapaa,” Waipa said. “After that I knew it was only a matter of time.”
Every year, humpback whales migrate from the waters around Alaska to Hawaii in order to mate and raise their young and whale season usually begins in late November or early December.
The majority of those whales head to Maui first, and the real action usually begins around Kauai in early January, according to Kalasara Setaysha with Kohola Leo, a whale education and conservation group on Kauai.
That’s usually when the group welcomes the whales in a ceremony at Kealia Bluff, where people share personal stories, sing songs, and offer chants involving humpback whales.
For the past four years that the refuge has been holding its contest, though, first whale sightings from Kilauea Point have been recorded between Oct. 23 and Oct. 26 like clockwork.
These first humpback whales are probably not breeding females, Setaysha theorizes, and are most likely males or juveniles that left early from Alaska.
“I don’t think it’s the females yet. They’re going to stay and eat as long as they can because they’re coming down here to give birth and they won’t eat,” Setaysha said. “They need as many energy reserves as possible.”
With the very first arrivals of the humpbacks being hailed by several sightings on the island, Setaysha said it’s now important for those doing water activities to keep an eye out for them.
“If you’re boating, you should be aware that they could be here,” Setaysha said. “It’s time to start looking out for them and to slow down.”