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Episode 1401: Vanishing Whales

Once nearly hunted to extinction, humpback whales have made a remarkable comeback since 1966, when the International Whaling Commission completed the global ban on commercial whaling of the animals. Research showed that the population of humpbacks that migrate between Hawaii and Alaska had recovered so steadily that in 2016 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration removed this distinct population segment of humpback whales from the U.S. endangered species list. 

But the celebration of this incredible conservation success story was short-lived. For decades, scientists in Southeast Alaska and the main Hawaiian Islands have been studying the humpback whales that frequent their waters, and experts in both locations are used to seeing many of the same whales year after year. This suddenly changed in 2016, when the animals stopped showing up in their usual numbers, and continued in the two years that followed. What had happened to the humpbacks?

In 2018, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary brought together more than 30 concerned researchers from over 17 organizations to compare findings and determine existing knowledge gaps. Different teams of scientists began to study the current status of the animals and what led to their sudden decline.


Meet the experts featured in this episode.

Special Thanks:


Pride of Maui

101 Maalaea Rd

Wailuku, HI 96793


Image Credits

Changing Seas would like to thank the following individuals and institutions who kindly allowed their footage, images and other media to be used in this production:

Emily Fergusson


Marc Lammers, Ph.D.



Library and Archives Canada/ 

Ernest Belton Collection/IDCISN: 11233


Ed Lyman 

Jason Moore

Jeff Pantukhoff

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale

National Marine Sanctuary

NOAA Permit Numbers:






NOAA MMHSRP Permit Numbers:





Joe Orsi 


Joe Mobley, Ph.D. 


Johanna Vollenweider 


John Moran 


Mandy Lindeberg 


Mark Carls 


© UNESCO / Mark Kelley 

NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 15844


© 2004 University of Southeast SPLASH 

NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 15844 


Martin van Aswegen

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 

NMFS Permit No. 21476/21321


Sea Search Ltd/Jurasz Family 


The Dolphin Institute

Dr. Adam Pack

NMFS Permit No. 707-153-00

National Marine Mammal Laboratory 

NMFS Permit No. 782-1719-00


All other footage of humpback whales & whale research taken under the authority

 of NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit Numbers:






Special Thanks:


Oceanwide Science Institute


Russell Hanson

Pride of Maui

Web Extras

Happy Whale – Identifying Whales for Fun and Science

Funding for this episode of Changing Seas was provided by:

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