Humpback Whale Behaviors on Our Maui Whale Watch Tours

Humpback whale watching season is still going strong here on Maui, and while some individuals have begun their yearly migration back to their summer feeding grounds off the Alaskan coast, many others won’t depart until late April or perhaps early May. That means if you’re on a spring vacation, there’s still time to hop on one of our Maui whale watch cruises.

Last week, we talked about a new behavior seen among southern humpback whales, which involves massive groups of up to 200 feeding off the southern coast of South Africa. While we’re on the subject of whale behaviors, we’d like to give you a handy guide to some of the maneuvers that you might spot while aboard one of our tours, or perhaps even from a good vantage point on land.

As you may have already learned, humpbacks come to Hawaii during the winter and spring months to breed and give birth to their calves. Mating behavior is quite the boisterous activity, with in-season females taking small groups of males on a merry chase where they each jostle each other out of the way in order to stay at the head of the pack. Sometimes, the males can get quite rough with each other, but most of the behaviors we see are much more relaxed than this kind of event. Here are the terms describing common whale behaviors.


Blow – This is the most common whale sign that you’re going to see. Humpbacks come up for air every 10-15 minutes, and when they release their breath, a spout of moisture is blown away from the whale’s blowhole, allowing for a clear new water-free breath to be taken in. If you track the spouts, you’ll be more likely to spot one of the more flashy behaviors. Calves come up every 3-5 minutes, making them even easier to track.

Tail Slap – Sometimes, a whale will lift its tail fin up high out of the water, and slap it down on the water’s surface. This causes quite a splash, not to mention an interesting sound both above and below the surface. Marine scientists think this signal is a warning.

Head Rise or Spy Hop – Once in a while, we’ll see a whale come straight up to the surface in a vertical position and poke its head up out of the water. Because the whale’s eye comes up above the surface, marine scientists have theorized that the whale is doing this to get a look at what’s happening above the surface. Hence the term “spy hop.” Our whale watching guests often have a lot of fun with the idea that while we’re watching the whales, they’re watching us. After all, curiosity is a trait that’s shared among humans and animals alike.

Head Lunge – Now just imagine the spy hop behavior, but less vertical. In this case, the whale will come up to the surface at an angle, thrust its head out of the water, and bring it down forcefully. This has been observed as a competitive display. Remember that mating behavior we were talking about earlier? Males will sometimes do this while vying for breeding rights with the female.

Pec Slap – Sometimes whales will lift their pectoral fin out of the water and slap it down on the surface. Sometimes they will do this with one fin, but sometimes both at once. Scientists think this is a communication or signal to other whales. Mother whales are often seen performing this action when traveling with a young baby, and has been observed frequently in stormy weather. This may help calves locate their mothers when visibility is poor.

Peduncle Slap – This is like the tail slap, only much more enthusiastic. The whale will send a good portion of its tail end up out of the water, and slam it down on the surface with considerable force.

Fluke Up Dive – In this instance, the tail flukes come up, but without any slapping action. The tail simply arches up out of the water and slips down again below the surface. This happens when a whale is maneuvering down in a dive from the surface area.

Breach – Last but not least, the famous breach. When you see a whale’s entire body come hurtling up out of the water to come slamming back down on the surface with a magnificent splash, you’ve witnessed a breach. This acrobatic display could be done for many reasons, but it certainly would be an ideal way to keep the skin free of smaller marine critters looking for a free ride.


Hopefully now you’ll have an easier time identifying those exciting aerial whale behaviors that have made whale watching one of the most celebrated activities on Maui! We hope to have you aboard one of our tours soon, so you can witness these exciting behaviors firsthand with your friends and family. Mahalo!

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