While Hawaii may be a household name when it comes to scuba vacations, less is known about the marine mammals that live in the waters around this tropical island state. Fascinating underwater topography and huge numbers of endemic tropical reef fish may steal the show, however, Hawaii is also home to at least 18 species of big marine animals for all or part of the year. Here are some of the most commonly sighted species spotted on a Hawaii scuba diving trip:
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaii's only endemic marine mammal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal is listed as 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List, but despite being a highly protected species, numbers are still declining. Around 600 seals are found mainly in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where they haul out on quiet beaches, volcanic rock, and corals. Other than mothers and pups, Hawaiian Monk Seals tend to be solitary, and can sometimes be spotted on dives foraging for fish, eels, cephalopods, and crustaceans.
Between December and May each year, thousands of North Pacific humpback whales gather in the shallow waters and lagoons around Hawaii to mate, birth, and nurse their young. These giant filter feeders have a deep cultural significance in Hawaiian, and so heavily regulated whale watching excursions ensure minimal disruption by visitors and tourists. Underwater through the winter months, divers will often hear the call of passing males, especially around the islands of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai.
Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin
Found in tropical and warm-temperate waters throughout the world, spinner dolphins are regularly spotted off the coast of Hawaii, wowing onlookers with acrobatic displays of flips, leaps, spins, and tail slaps. During the day, pods rest in clear, shallow inshore lagoons, while at night they hunt in groups for small fish, shrimp, and squid. Interacting with the dolphins in the water may seem very tempting, however, there are strict regulations in place protecting them while they rest, to minimize human impact.
Bottlenose dolphins are the largest of Hawaii's dolphins, and the islands' several thousand individuals are often found in small pods of less than 10 individuals. They often interact with swimmers and boats and have even been known to ride the bow wave of humpback whales. Bottlenose dolphins regularly approach divers underwater and can spend many minutes interacting if treated with respect.
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
Closely related to spinner dolphins, and looking very similar, spotted dolphins are mostly seen patrolling the channels between islands and are rarely spotted inshore. Like the spinners, they can travel in schools numbering in the hundreds of individuals, and also school with other species of dolphin. Visitors to Hawaii will most likely encounter spotted dolphins around Big Island, Oahu, and Maui Nui.
False Killer Whale
A small population of around 200 false killer whales lives in the waters of Hawaii. They are often found in small, tightly bonded subgroups that then combine to form larger aggregations of 40 or 50 animals. In Hawaii, the populations are top predators, hunting both day and night for fish and squid. They can sometimes be seen leaping out of the water and throwing their catch into the air before eating it.
Have you visited Hawaii? What marine mammals did you spot during your trip?
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