Maka'ala the humpback whale

On March 18, 2009, Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team spotted a mother and calf off the coast of West Maui, just south of Lahaina. They snapped a picture of the mother’s distinctive tail flukes, featuring white markings reminiscent of watchful eyes.

Whenever our researchers encounter humpback whales in the wild, things get very busy as they work to collect as much information about the whales and the encounter as possible. One of the researchers notes the GPS coordinates of the animals and takes careful notes about the whales’ behaviors, group composition and direction of movement. [To view a map showing the exact GPS coordinates of the location of this sighting, please click here.] Another researcher takes photographs of the whales, attempting to capture as many clear photos as possible of each animal’s dorsal fin and tail flukes.

The flukes (the underside of the whales’ tails) of each individual whale bear unique pigmentation patterns and have a distinctive shape. They can be used to identify individual whales in a manner similar to utilizing fingerprints to identify humans. Dorsal fins also display distinctive shapes and markings. Our researchers keep photo records of the whales they encounter. By matching new photos to old records, the research team can track individual whales over the years. At this point Pacific Whale Foundation’s research files contain photographic documentation of approximately 2,000 individual whales in Maui County waters dating back to 1981, as well as almost 5,000 whales in Australia, dating back to 1984.

Back at the research lab, our team compared the March 18 photos of the mother whale with photos of other individual humpback whales they’ve identified in the past in Hawai’i. They combed through thousands of photos searching for a match for the unique “eye” pattern on her tail flukes, and they found one – she had been sighted in Maui County waters before!

Inspired by the whale’s unique markings and by the fact that she was a mother, we named her “Maka’ala”, which means “to be alert, vigilant, watchful.”

Our records show that Maka’ala was first sighted by our research team back on February 28, 1986, in the Au’au Channel (between South Maui and the island of Kaho’olawe). On that occasion she was photographed in a pod of five animals about a half-mile from Molokini Crater, a popular Maui snorkel site. She was sighted again the following day southwest of Molokini in a pod consisting of 4 adults and 1 subadult.

In 1991, Maka’ala was sighted on April 24th but unfortunately we have no further data on this sighting.

She was photographed again in 2006 on March 20th in Ma’alaea Bay, close to Pacific Whale Foundation’s home in Ma’alaea Harbor. This time she was accompanied by a calf and an adult a male.

On March 18, 2009 Maka’ala was seen again with a calf off the coast of west Maui.

Our research team will continue to collect photographic records of the whales that visit Maui County each year to compare against the existing catalog. We are hopeful that we will “resight” Maka’ala (perhaps with a new calf) again soon! Each time we encounter her we will be able to learn more about this particular whale’s life.


Sightings of Maka'ala