By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau
WAILUKU, Maui The whale season is off to a splashing start, according tour operators and other ocean observers.
"Its been fantastic so far," said Anne Rillero of the Pacific Whale Foundation, the Maui nonprofit organization that runs whale-watch tours and conducts research. "Weve had steady whale sightings since late November. Its great."
Naomi McIntosh, acting manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said whale sightings are being reported regularly to her Oahu office. She said she saw her first two whales of the year on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the sanctuarys Maui office in Kihei experienced a record 400 visitors in December as excitement builds for the season, which lasts through May.
"We expect to see them in large numbers very shortly," McIntosh said.
Rillero noted that this seasons first reported humpback whale sighting off the coast of Maui occurred Sept. 16, two weeks earlier than the first sighting the previous season.
Humpback whales travel 2,500 to 3,000 miles to come to Hawaii from Alaskan waters where they spend the summer. Scientists say the first whales to arrive are usually juveniles, yearling calves and their mothers. These whales are followed by mature males and females. The last to arrive are pregnant females.
While here, pregnant females give birth. Researchers believe Hawaii's warm waters aid in the survival of the newborns, born without much blubber for insulation. Mating also occurs here, with females giving birth 10 to 11 months later
A recent study commissioned by the sanctuary found that the humpback whales are worth an estimated $19 million to $27 million to Hawaiis economy, with nearly 400,000 people going on whale-watching tours each year.
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