On sunny July day, a group of humpback whales feeds in the waters of Icy Straits in northern Southeast Alaska. But when fall comes to Alaska, most of the humpback whales that summer in Southeast Alaska waters head to Hawaii to breed and to give birth. It's a month-long migration of about 2,500 miles. This year the first whales were sighted off Maui on October 20; in 2008 the first whales arrived in Hawaiian waters on Oct. 12. They return to Alaska in the spring and summer to feed. Most, but not all the whales leave - each year, a few whales remain in Southeast Alaska waters for the winter.
When commercial whaling was banned in the mid-1960s, only about 1,000 humpbacks were left in the north Pacific. But the population has grown tremendously over the past 40 years. Today, there are about 18,500 humpback whales estimated in the North Pacific, belonging to three distinct stocks. The humpback whales that spend summers in Southeast Alaska are a distinct population known as the central north Pacific stock. The stocks are defined by their use of specific summer feeding areas, winter breeding areas, and the particular migration routes and patterns they take between these areas. There are about 4,000 whales estimated in the Central North Pacific Stock, and the population is growing about five percent each year.