The Closing of Makahiki Signals the Departure of the Koholā


By Cindy ʻIwalani Among-Serrao, Kanoe Morishige and Malia Evans

Every Makahiki season, thousands of koholā (humpback whales) return to the warm, shallow waters of Hawaiʻi Nei to mate, give birth, and raise their young.

Seeing these beautiful kinolau of Kanaloa is a reminder of the changing season as we witness their annual return to the banks and seamounts across our pae ʻāina, including the marine environment of Papahānaumokuākea.

As Makahiki season ends, we begin to bid them a fond “a hui hou.” Their time in Hawaiʻi marks a significant seasonal cycle ingrained in their annual migrations here, to their primary breeding grounds, and remind us of our pilina (relationships) to these koholā.

Their birth and migrations are well-documented in ʻŌiwi oral traditions and continue to connect us to our ocean realms here in Hawaiʻi and Moananuiākea. The Kumulipo announces the existence of the whale in the second wā. “Hānau ka palaoa noho i kai” – born is the whale living in the ocean.”

Koholā are renowned for their vocalizations, which are a critical component of their ecology.

Sound plays a tremendous role in the survival of koholā because it is used for communication, orientation and navigation, hunting prey, and avoiding predators. During whale season, male humpback whales sing a complex song that becomes the dominant source of underwater ambient noise in many parts of Hawaiʻi. If you’re snorkeling or diving in Hawaiʻi between November and April, you may hear ka leo o nā koholā – the choir of whales.

Since 2006, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers have used acoustic monitoring technology and remote sensing wave gliders to better understand the presence of koholā in Papahānaumokuākea and recently published their findings.

Results of their research show high and sustained seasonal chorusing levels of whale songs measured not only in the inhabited Hawaiian Islands but at every location sampled in Papahānaumokuākea. In Papahānaumokuākea, song prevalence was highest at Middle Bank and gradually decreased further to the northwest, reaching a minimum at Pūhāhonu (Gardner Pinnacles).

There is a larger pae ʻāina-wide research effort in progress to track long-term trends in biological and human-influenced activities in Papahānaumokuākea through partnerships with Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. This includes expanding our knowledge regarding the presence and abundance of koholā across our pae ʻāina.

As our beloved koholā begin to depart Hawaiʻi, we would like to remind ocean users to keep a safe and legal distance of at least 100 yards from whales, and reduce harassment and possible vessel strikes that pose risks to the animals and ocean users alike.

Additional wildlife viewing guidelines, safety tips, and hotlines can be found at We look forward to welcoming our koholā back in the next Makahiki season but until then, “a hui hou.”

Cindy ʻIwalani Among-Serrao is the Hawaiʻi Island program coordinator on behalf of the NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Kanoe Morishige is the Native Hawaiian program specialist, and Malia K. Evans is the Oʻahu Outreach and Education coordinator on behalf of NOAA Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and UNESCO Mixed Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site.