Issue 10.6: December 2006/January 2007

The Other Whale

story by Dennis Hollier

Each year, whale-watchers spend millions of dollars in Hawai‘i to see the large numbers of humpbacks that migrate here every year. But few may be aware that another whale, arguably the most magnificent cetacean to visit Hawaiian waters, also visits the Islands each winter: the fin whale.

Reaching lengths of 80 feet, the fin whale is the second largest animal on Earth, after the blue whale. But size isn’t everything; the sleek, torpedo-shaped fin whale is also one of the fastest cetaceans, able to swim 25 mph for short bursts. And the aptly nicknamed “greyhound of the deep” has other distinctions. Dave Johnston, who studies fin whales for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, points out that fin whales have a peculiar, asymmetric color pattern. “The right side of the head is light-colored, and the left side is dark,” he says. But why this is the case isn’t clear.

Scientifically speaking, little is known about the great whales, including the fin whale. “One of the reasons people see humpbacks,” Johnston says, “is because they have this coastal behavior.” But, he points out, “most people have no idea that we have twenty-four species of cetaceans in Hawai‘i.” Probably because, like fin whales, they don’t congregate in near-shore waters, and, unlike the more acrobatic humpbacks, fins don’t breach as often.

Before coming to Hawai‘i, Johnston studied fin whales in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. There, in the wake of Manaan Island, fins gather to plunder rich schools of krill caught in the eddies formed by the bay’s powerful currents. “On any given day,” Johnston says, “you can see five or six fin whales.”

Hawaiian waters are less productive, though, and the fin population less dense. No one knows for certain how many visit Hawai‘i. A 2002 survey spotted just four fin whales and extrapolated the population in Hawai‘i to be about 174 individuals spread thinly over 1.5 million square miles of ocean. “I’ve been in Hawai‘i for three years,” Johnston says, “and I haven’t actually seen one here.”

Even so, veteran whale-watchers shouldn’t despair of ever glimpsing one of these goliaths. As Johnston says, “If you’re in an area where fin whales are feeding, you can see their blows from miles away.” HH