Kohola – Humpback Whale

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

The kohola, or Humpback whale, is a cetacean which migrates 3000 miles to Hawaii from Alaska sometime around November- December and remains in Hawaiian waters until April. These whales do not feed in Hawaii but spend their time finding a mate, giving birth, and nurturing young calves. On average 8,000-10,000 kohola visit Hawaiian waters each year where they frequently reside in pods of 2-3 individuals inside the National Marine Sanctuary. The species is federally endangered due to whaling, fishing operations, habitat loss, and entanglement in marine debris making much of the Hawaiian islands waters critical habitat for the species. The kohola are mammals, just like us, which can be seen leaping out the water in a courtship display to find a mate. They feed by straining water through baleen plates, which act much like a sieve, to eat krill (shrimp like crustaceans) and small fish.

Fun fact: Phytoplankton, responsible for producing 50-70% of the planet’s oxygen, rely on whale faeces as their primary source of energy. Because of this, whale poop is vital to all life on earth!

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

Historically, Hawaiians did not seek out whales as food. If, however, a whale or whale carcass became stranded or drifted to shore, it was considered the property of the local chief. Whale teeth were prized as ornaments, and the lei niho palaoa–a necklace worn exclusively by chiefs–could only be made using a whale’s tooth. After the feather cloak, the lei niho palaoa was the most prized clothing article in Hawaiian culture.  

Boki (Governor of Oahu) and Liliha wearing a lei niho palaoa 1824

Whales are common ‘aumakua in Hawaiian culture, or deified ancestors that take the form of an animal to protect and provide advice to certain families. ‘Kohola’ refers to  humpback whales as well as reef flats, perhaps due to the similarity of the whale’s spray with the spray of the reef. The No ke Koholā Hiamoe, or Sleeping Whale story, describes a slow and old whale who decided to take a nap at the ocean’s surface in the middle of the Pacific. While the whale was sleeping, limu (seaweed), crabs, and coconut began to grow on his back. Years passed and the original coconut dropped its seeds, and more coconut trees began to grow so that the whale’s back looked like a small island. To this day, the whale is still asleep and it is possible to see the small island drifting in the sea. One has to look closely, though, because it is always drifting and is difficult to lose sight of! (Ku’ula Marine Resource Management)

Like many other animals, whales were depicted as rock art. On the island of Lanai, on top of the whale watching spot of “whale hill,” there is an engraving of a whale with a human on its back.

Palaoa Hill, Lanai, image from NPS and Kenneth P. Emory and Bishop Museum



Whales are first featured in line 251 of the Hawaiian creation chant, although the word used, Palaoa, refers to the Sperm Whale rather than the Humpback Whale.

Hanau ka Palaoa noho i kai
Born is the Palaoa [whale] living in the sea