Can’t Live Without ‘Em: Humpback Whales

A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.


In Hawaii, no animal is bigger than the humpback whale. Weighing up to 40 tons (about 80,000 pounds), nothing rivals these giant ocean acrobats in physical size or economic impact, which includes a big boost to the local tourism industry. At the start of the 21st century, tour operators in Hawaii earned an estimated $16 million in ticket sales for wildlife excursions. Of that number, $11 million– almost 70 percent — was credited to tours specifically for the humpback whale.

And it’s not surprising when you see how these graceful giants captivate audiences. Though massive, humpbacks are actually one of the smaller baleen whales (whales who use net-like filters called baleen to filter food) and one of the most agile. They leap out of the water and make giant splashes as they crash back into the ocean. This spectacle—called breaching—enchants whale watchers all over the world.

Humpbacks can grow up to 16 meters in length with females growing slightly larger. During the summer, the whales feed on krill and small fish to stock up for long migrations to warmer winter waters. From December to April humpbacks are common sights along the shores of the Hawaiian Islands. This is good news for Hawaii’s economy. More than 50 boats and about 300 jobs are dedicated specifically to the business of humpback whale watching in the state. Those who want an even closer look at the whales often take guided snorkeling expeditions—an industry itself worth more than $5 million. Not only in Hawaii, but off the coast of Australia, Canada and all around the world, humpbacks bring in an estimated $60-90 million in annual tourism revenue according to studies by NOAA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Local, national, and international conservationists get support from businesses and communities because of the humpbacks’ proven profitability.

One reason the whales are so marketable is that they are naturally curious and charismatic. Humpbacks often come very close to tourist boats and some even hover around or beneath the vessels for extended periods. Casual tourists often observe the whales from the beach and jump at the opportunity to see the majestic animals up close on boat rides.

Spyhopping humpbacks captivate eager tourists

Big Business Faces Big Challenges

Unfortunately, there was a time when hunting made it difficult to find these whales. In the 1960s, estimated populations of humpback whale fell from more than 120,000 to only about 20,000 animals worldwide as they were nearly hunted to extinction. In 1970, under a precursor to the endangered species act, the U.S. government awarded legal protection to the humpback.

Along with many other countries, the United States outlawed whaling (commercial whale hunting) and took actions to protect the creatures from other perils which sparked a rebound in populations.

Although they’re protected in all U.S. coastal waters under the Endangered Species Act, humpbacks still face many threats including collisions with ships and habitat disruption such as underwater drilling. The whales are sometimes entangled in fishing nets and other debris. To protect this charming animal we must set and uphold higher standards of maintaining cleaner more sustainable oceans.

Losing the humpback would not only be a devastating blow to marine ecosystems, it would also be downright bad for business.

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