Where are the whales? 
        Fewer humpbacks have been seen in our waters over the past several years.
        It is a marine mammal mystery that researchers haven't been able to solve, but there is finally some good news about these gigantic visitors to the islands..

         On a beautiful winter day, East Oahu's Lanai Lookout attracts a crowd to see the spectacular sight of humpback whales in Hawaii's waters.

         "I heard before we came here from Wisconsin that they were migrating here, so I was hoping to see some," said Wisconsin visitor Doreen Renken.

          Every winter the majestic mammals migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their breeding grounds here.
Then put on enthralling displays once they arrive.

"It is exciting to see what those large animals can do. When they come out of the water with their breaching, blows and pec slaps, it is just amazing what nature can do," said visitor Cary Lang.

Cary and his wife Mary, have been coming to Hawaii for 20 years. They not only watch the whales, but also tally them up as part of the annual whale counts. Unfortunately they've noticed a disturbing trend.

"The last 2-3 years, the numbers have been a lot less," stated Mary.

"Over the past three seasons we've seen these lower numbers, and that has been unexpected because the population had been on an upward trend," said NOAA Whale Research Coordinator Marc Lammers.

In 2016, Hawaii's humpback whales were even taken off the endangered species list, but by then scientists had already started to see a significant drop in visiting whales. 
The humpback population peaked at an estimated 12,000 whales about 5 years ago. Now Lammers said there may be between 2,000-5,000 fewer whales. 

He added researchers aren't sure if there has been a reduction in the overall humpback population or if the mammals are simply going somewhere else.

"The northwest Hawaiian islands are one area we are interested in, because there is a lot of potential good whale habitat...but nobody up there looking for whales," stated Lammers. 

Researchers are setting up acoustic recorders along the northwest Hawaiian islands to see if humpbacks are using new breeding grounds.
Experts may discover where whales are now going, but so far they haven't been able to figure out why...although it may have do with their food.

"Something seems to have changed with the humpback whales prey, up in Alaska. Fewer prey and preferred prey being absent or reduced in numbers," added Lammers.

That may mean the massive mammals may not have enough food to make the several thousand mile long journey across the Pacific. 
So why aren't scientists sounding the alarm over the shortage of whales in Hawaii?

"As easily as the population can decline, it could start to recover again. The species itself has shown the ability to recover its numbers," said Lammers.

In fact, this year volunteers with the annual whale count and other researchers have reported more humpbacks than in previous years.
If that continues it could turnaround the vanishing trend, which would mean more of the marine mammals would be in our waters once again.