Hawaii is known for lush tropical plants, exotic birds, and magnificent volcanoes, but what swims below the waves? The ocean life surrounding the islands is full of just as much variety, beauty, and unique creatures as the land above. In fact, Hawaii hosts many native animals, including several species that are only found near Hawaii. Humpback whales, Hawaiian Monk seals, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, the Turkey Fish, and the Spotted Eagle Ray are some of the most famous creatures lucky enough to call Hawaii home.



Humpback whales are most commonly spotted during the late Fall and Spring months as a part of their migration pattern. These whales travel thousands of miles from Alaska to Hawaii every year to escape from icy Alaskan waters. In Hawaii, Humpback Whales enjoy a tropical climate for mating and birthing calves. The mating process is a particularly violent and brash one, because of the competition between males. You can tell two males are fighting for a mate if you see see two whales chasing each other and whipping their tails against one another. A less dangerous activity for male Humpback Whales is singing- and yes, you heard that right! Whale songs can be heard from miles away and last up to 20 minutes. While the exact function of whale songs in unknown, it is definitely incredible to experience. After mating, it takes eleven months for baby whales to be born. The average length of a newborn calf is 15 feet long, compared to the 45 feet of the adults. Mothers are very protective of their calves, constantly swimming side by side next to their little one. According to GoHawaii.com, whale watching tours in Hawaii can range anywhere between $50-$200 depending on what island you’re on and the likelihood of spotting a Humpback whale.



Hawaiian Monk Seals are endemic, or unique to the islands. This is important to note because unfortunately their numbers are drastically falling. Not only were these adorable creatures were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century, but human interactions still threat them today. While it is now illegal to hunt them, entanglement in debris and trash, as well as food limitations are a danger to Hawaiian Monk Seals. Today, there are only 1,000-1,200 of these seals left in the world. If you are lucky enough to spot one, you will know it is a Monk Seal by their grey/silver color and because of the rolls on its underbelly. According to National Geographic, the Monk Seal gets its name both because the belly rolls resemble the fabric gatherings of a monk’s hood and because they spend the majority of their life in solitude. Their Hawaiian name is “llio holo I ka uaua” which means “dog that runs in the rough seas.” They got this name centuries ago because people had never seen anything like them before with their facial features resembling the likeness of a puppy with their large brown eyes and their flat noses and whiskers. The best place to spot a Monk Seal is on the northern islands where few people live. Here you can find monk seals basking in the sun along the shores and in the spring, caring for their pups.


The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle, or “honu,” is legendary in Hawaii. Many ancient Hawaiians treated these turtles as a “aumakua” or deity. However, in the 1970s turtle meat was a delicacy and their skin was used to make a variety of leather goods. Because they were nearly hunted to extinction, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle was declared Endangered in 1978 by United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Since then it is a federal offense in 1978 to kill any Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. (Glick. D.) Today, the turtle is once again greatly admired. People come from all over the world to see them because they are the largest turtle in the world, weighing in at 300lbs. Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles are the most commonly seen turtle in Hawaii. They are easily recognizable because of their amber color shells and bright green bellies!



The Hawaiian Turkey Fish, also known as the Lionfish, is one of 200 species of scorpionfish. Twenty-five of these can be found in Hawaii, but the Hawaiian Turkey Fish is the only one endemic to the islands. They are known for their bright orange color, feathery fins, and devil-like horns and spines. They dwell in dark crevices and caves and eat small fish, snails and crustaceans. All scorpionfish are covered in thin fins that look like feathers, as well as sharp spines. The feathery fins help these fish blend in with coral, while the spines both protect them from predators and help them catch prey. The venom immediately releases upon contact, which can either stun larger predators or kill prey. While their venom is not fatal for humans, getting stung definitely hurts, so be careful while snorkeling or diving in coral reefs.


The Hawaiian Spotted Eagle Ray or “hihimanu” gets its name because they swim through the sea with the grace of an eagle and have a wingspan reaching up to six feet long. Even though they soar through the waters with ease, these polka-dotted sea birds can weigh up to 500 pounds! However, unlike the stingrays you might pet at an aquarium, Hihimanu rays are very bashful in nature and will swim away quickly if they see you. Hihimanu are not technically classified as true stingrays because their barbs do not extend far enough down their tail. Even so, Hihimanu share many of the same traits as true stingrays, including how they navigate and detect predators and prey. Hihimanu and stingrays are able to detect predators and to dig out prey from under the sand. This ability is possible as a result of a electroreceptor system in their bodies. Specifically called the ampullae of Lorenzini, special pores under their jaw and snout let Hihimanu and stingrays, to sense magnetic fields in the earth as well as in prey and predators. Being able to sense the magnetic fields in the earth also helps them to navigate through the ocean. A second system, called a “lateral line,” senses motion through the water works alongside the ampullae of Lorenzini. The lateral line system is made up of a series of “canals” running through the side of their bodies. Special cells called neuromasts are able to feel and interpret vibrations flowing through the canals. By reading the vibrations, Hihimanu and stingrays know where prey and predators are moving. These two systems help to level the playing field between them and sharks- their biggest prey- who happen to have electroreception and lateral line systems as well.



Written by Courtney Woolford


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