Humpback Whale from Glacier Bay National Park is a Regular Winter Resident of Hawai'i

Distinctive markings on a whale flukes allow identification of individual animals. NPS photo.

Hawaii's lure as a wintertime destination isn't limited to humans, and researchers recently spotted a regular seasonal visitor to island waters. A humpback whale that's regularly seen in and near Glacier Bay National Park each summer has been making the annual trek for at least 21 years.

The whale, dubbed #875 by researchers, was spotted on March 15, 2011, by researchers from the non-profit Hawai'i Marine Mammal Consortium, including Glacier Bay National Park's whale biologist Chris Gabriele. Gabriele recognized #875, a whale regularly seen each summer in Glacier Bay and the waters just south of the park known as Icy Strait.

Each year, humpback whales migrate from high latitude feeding grounds such as Glacier Bay to tropical waters to breed in the winter. Using photographs of the unique markings on each whale's tail flukes, researchers have determined that most of the whales from southeastern Alaska winter in Hawai'i, although some migrate to Mexico.

Whale #875 has a long history with researchers. The big mammal was first documented in Seymour Canal in southeastern Alaska in 1985 by researcher Jan Straley, who has also sighted him in Tenakee Inlet, Chatham Strait, and Frederick Sound several times over the past three decades.

In 1987, Glacier Bay biologist C. Scott Baker observed #875 with fresh propeller scars, still visible in the 2011 photo from Hawai'i, which he believed to have resulted from a collision with a small vessel whale-watching in Icy Strait. Whale #875 has frequently been documented as a leader in coordinated feeding groups eating herring in Chatham Strait by Fred Sharpe and others from the Alaska Whale Foundation, who nicknamed the whale "Arpeggio".

#875 has been making the trek to Hawaii for at least two decades. In 1990, researchers from the University of Hawai'i documented whale #875 as a singer and recorded his song off the west coast of the Big Island, only a few miles from where he was sighted in 2011. Researchers thus presumed #875 to be male because song is a display made by males during their winter mating season. His sex was confirmed by genetic analysis of a few flakes of his skin which were sloughed off when he breached in Icy Strait in 1997 and 1998.

Biologists point out that "collaboration among researchers working in different areas is an important key to learning more about the long and interesting lives of this wide-ranging whale species." You can view a catalog of humpback whale flukes from southeastern Alaska and learn more about whale biology migration and behavior at this website. The site, which gathers photographs contributed by many research groups and individuals into a single catalog available to all, was developed by Jan Straley and Jen Cedarleaf of the University of Alaska Southeast, in collaboration with Glacier Bay National Park.

Gabriele commented, "Even though as a scientist I know that humpback whales commonly migrate from Alaska to Hawai'i, it is always a thrill to see a familiar whale who has made that trip. That's at least a 2,700 mile swim! I look forward to seeing #875 again in Alaska in summer 2011."