Driving a Zodiac Boat in Search of Singing Humpback Whales in Hawaii: Swimming Eye-to-Eye as a Whale Sang a Powerful Song

We search for intelligent alien life in the vast reaches of the universe, but right here on Earth, an intelligent lifeform has roamed the ocean for millions of years: whales. Long before I was a writer, I was a marine biologist. I researched humpback whales around Maui, Hawaii, and orca whales around the San Juan Islands of Washington State. In Hawaii, I drove a Zodiac inflatable boat in search of singing humpback whales. It was a magical and otherwordly experience. The pinnacle of it all was when swimming in the ocean, I came eye-to-eye as a whale sang a powerful song.

Humpback whales in the warm waters of Hawaii: Mate and create new life 

Humpback whale breaches over the ocean for a story about singing whales around Maui, Hawaii
Acrobatic humpback whale breaching | Reinhard Dirscherl/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Humpback whales are amazing creatives. After feeding and packing on the pounds in the waters around Alaska in the summer months, humpback whales make a very speedy trek across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. To get to Hawaii, they travel 3,000 miles, swimming nearly 100 miles per day. During this trip, humpback whales move so fast that they barely eat any food, relying on the stores of fat on their body from the Alaskan feeding to provide the fuel along the way. 

Right now, in December, is when many of the humpback whales first arrive at the Hawaiian Islands. It’s a magical time. 

Why do humpback whales make the trip to Hawaii? They come to the warm waters of Hawaii to mate and create new life. Late November to early May is the humpback whale breeding season in Hawaii. Male and female humpback whales unite and mate, and then the females give birth to baby humpback whale calves. The mother humpback whales nurse and guide their calf until around April or early May. Then, all the humpback whales make the trip back to Alaska, repeating the cycle every year.

Why do Humpback whales in Hawaii sing their songs?

Humpback whale sings song in the Pacific Ocean near Maui, Hawaii
Humpback whale sings song near Maui, Hawaii | Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

We didn’t even get to the most amazing thing about humpback whales yet: their elaborate songs. Male humpback whales sing songs throughout the breeding season. These songs are a mixture of high and low-pitched sounds. Sometimes the songs that male humpback whales sing are unique, but usually, the songs are similar amongst whales. Often, throughout each breeding season in Hawaii, the songs follow a common theme and pattern. It’s kind of like the “popular” song of the season.

Songs and whale communication were my marine biology specialty. I researched whale communication for humpback whales around Hawaii and orca whales around the San Juan Islands. In the waters around Maui, Hawaii in 1998, I worked on a research project with the Pacific Whale Foundation, driving a Zodiac inflatable boat in search of singing humpback whales. Once we found the singing humpback whales, we recorded their songs with a hydrophone — or underwater microphone. 

Whale communication is far more complex than most people realize. Tens of millions of years before the existence of humans, whales communicated to each other in intricate ways, and they still do it today. I aimed to understand what whales communicate to each other and why they do it. 

Why do humpback whales in Hawaii sing? It’s still a mystery, but there are some possible explanations. One possibility is that male humpback whales may warn other males to keep their distance while they court a female. A more likely explanation, though, is that the male humpback whales sing their songs to attract a mate — wooing a female with a song. Also, they may sing to attract a group of female humpback whales to a group of males — a humpback whale courtship party with musical accompaniment.

Another theory is that humpback whales use the songs as an echolocation device to find other whales. So, the humpback whales sing their songs to scare away other males, attract females, invite females to a courtship party, or to find their way. That sounds quite similar to many human songs, doesn’t it?

Zodiac inflatable boat: The Land Rover or Jeep of the ocean

For those of you unfamiliar with Zodiac inflatable boats, they are kind of like the Land Rovers or Jeeps of the ocean. Zodiac Nautic is a French company that dates back to 1896. Zodiac inflatable boats are very durable and maneuverable — and with their air reserves, are nearly unsinkable.

With these capabilities, Zodiac inflatable boats are the small boat of choice for militaries, explorers, marine biology researchers, whale and dolphin watching excursions, divers, and watersports enthusiasts in over 90 countries around the world.

Breaching humpback whales near the Zodiac inflatable boat

Man driving a Zodiac inflatable boat, highlighting a story about singing Humpback whales near Maui, Hawaii
Zodiac inflatable boat | John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

In addition to the songs, there are a couple of other unique aspects of humpback whales. One is their distinctive tail flukes. Another reason we drove the Zodiac inflatable boat in search of humpback whales around Maui was to take photographs of the tail flukes of humpback whales. Like a human fingerprint, each humpback whale tail fluke is unique. It is the best way to identify individual humpback whales. 

The other unique thing about humpback whales is their acrobatic breaches. They shoot out of the water, twist and spin in the air, and then crash back down into the ocean. We would see the humpback whales breach from time to time, but one day was especially prolific.

We set off with the Zodiac inflatable boat from Kihei, Maui, a tranquil beachfront town and the home base of our Pacific Whale Foundation research team. On this day, our research team followed a large group of humpback whales to photograph their tail flukes. I shut off the ignition of the Zodiac boat, and then we were treated to an incredible show. 

A whale breached, soaring high into the air, and thundered back into the water, leaving a massive cannonball of water in its wake. To give you a perspective of what it’s like to see this, an adult humpback whale is the size of a large bus. Now, imagine a bus that flies through the air and then crashes down into the water.

Soon after the first whale breach, another breach followed. This time, a humpback whale did a nearly 360-degree twist through the air. Then another whale breach followed — and another, and another. Each breach was successively more elaborate and acrobatic. This continued for 20 minutes — and then one final breach.

Right in front of our boat, a humpback whale burst out of the water. The whale gracefully spun through the air like it was in suspended slow motion, and then splashed down, sending a cascade of water over the boat. It was breathtaking. 

Zodiac boat to beautiful Molokini Crater for snorkeling, flying high above the coral reefs

Molokini crater atoll near Maui, Hawaii, we jumped off Zodiac boat for snorkling
Molokini crater atoll near Maui, Hawaii | Douglas Peebles/Corbis via Getty Images

I didn’t think it would be possible to top the awe-inspiring experience of the breaching humpback whales. However, the last day of my marine biology research on the Zodiac boat was the most magical of all. 

Since it was our last day, our research team wanted to do something special. So we drove the Zodiac inflatable boat to Molokini Crater. It’s a beautiful crescent-shaped atoll that formed after a volcanic eruption around 230,000 years ago. Part of Molokini is an island, and the rest is submerged underwater.

Molokini is a vibrant place. It has gorgeous coral reefs and abundant animal life, including around 250 endemic marine and bird species. With its crystal clear waters, Molokini is also an excellent place for snorkeling and scuba diving.

We jumped off of the Zodiac boat and snorkeled in Molokini Crater. The visibility at Molokini is up to 150 feet, so snorkeling there is like flying. With marine life such as sea turtles, parrotfish, and raccoon butterflyfish swimming around me, I snorkeled, flying high above the colorful color reefs. 

A magical day of swimming with singing Hawaiian humpback whales

After our snorkeling excursion at Molokini, we took a leisurely ride in the Zodiac boat back to Kihei. On the way back, we were treated to one more magical experience — and this one was the best of all. 

While driving the boat, skimming across the calm Maui waters, we heard the bellowing song of a humpback whale below us. We quickly stopped the boat and listened. The song grew more loud and intense. Then, I jumped off the boat and swam in the water while the whale sang its song. It was phenomenal, and words can’t truly describe this one last magical experience. 

Eye-to-eye view of a humpback whale, highlighting a story about swimming by a singing humpback whale near Maui, Hawaii
Eye-to-eye view of humpback whale | Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The singing humpback whale was very close to me. It briefly paused its song and swam even closer. This massive and majestic creature made eye contact with me. Then it swam and flipped its body to an inverted upside-down position, with its head pointing downward. He continued his song. He sang with even greater intensity, soaring from guttural low pitches to piercing high notes. 

The soundwaves of the humpback whale song were so powerful that I could feel them vibrate throughout my body. It was so strong that my body shook in sync with the soundwaves. This was especially the case for the low-pitched sounds, which carry more force. It was an otherworldly, mind-bending, miraculous — and most of all, beautiful experience.

The humpback whale flipped back up and swam even closer to me. It looked at me one more time, slowly turned, and elegantly swam away. 

‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ on the boat ride back to Maui

Sunset at the beach in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii, near where I drove a Zodiac inflatable boat
Sunset at Kihei, Maui, Hawaii | Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

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The singing humpback whale experience, and the entire Maui trip, was very meaningful and cathartic for me. Less than one month earlier, my grandfather died. It was the first time in my life that a close loved one died. My grandfather’s death was shocking to me. In the wake of this, the Hawaii experiences were healing. At one point during the powerful humpback whale song, I thought of my grandfather and felt one last connection to him.

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Another person who died months before my Maui trip was Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, the Hawaiian musician, singer, and songwriter. He is most famous for his beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

On the Zodiac boat ride back to Maui, I put on my headphones and listened to the song. As Somewhere Over the Rainbow played with the sunset creating multi-color hues over the water, I reflected. Emotion overtook me as I thought about all of the life-altering things that happened. The song was the perfect soundtrack for a peaceful boat ride back home after a magical time with singing humpback whales.

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