Hawaii’s Humpback Whales Have Gone Missing

Scientists expect about 10,000 whales to visit Hawaii’s tropical waters this winter—but they’re taking their time

Humpback Whale Spouts
Where are the whales? Paul Souders/Corbis

Winter is whale season in Hawaii: Every December, an estimated two-thirds of the North Pacific’s humpback whale population makes its way to the islands’ warm waters. But this year, reports the Associated Press, the whales haven’t shown up on schedule.

Usually, Hawaii’s tropical waters lure whales to the area to mate, have babies, and nurse their calves. Scientists expect around 10,000 whales traveling anywhere between three and seven miles per hour to head to the islands from as far as 3,000 miles away. The expected mating event is so significant that it has its own national marine sanctuary and a season that fuels whale watching and other whale-related tourism in the state.

This year, though, the whale welcoming has been put on hold due to extremely low numbers of arriving whales during the early season. Scientists speculate that the whales might just be further north due to water temperature disruptions from El Niño that could be changing the availability of food, writes the Associated Press.

West Hawaii Today’s Bret Yager writes that the whales’ tardiness could also be related to gains in population, which would mean more competition for the food whales eat in the north. If the humpback whales really have regained their numbers, that would be great news: The whales have been considered threatened and even endangered for years.

Each year, NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary conducts a count to monitor whale populations. This annual event doesn't take place until late January, so experts will not know for sure what the overall population numbers look like till later this year.

Will the whales have shown up by then? Nobody knows—but given that ocean temperatures around the Hawaiian Islands are already hovering in the upper 70's, there's no need for them put off their warm tropical vacation much longer.

Editor's note, January 1, 2016: This article was corrected to emphasize that the actual populations of whales is not lower overall but lower than expected in the early season. It was also changed to clarify that the whale count is an annual event that will start in late January.

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