PUBLISHED: 3:57 PM on Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Annual migration more than a whale's tale
The Hawaii connection

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Not only are tourists heading south, in September whales begin taking off for the warmer waters of Hawaii in their seasonal migration.
As September's rain falls heavily, darkness starts to fill daylight hours, birds and the last cruise ships are departing, Alaskans start planning their Hawaii sojourns.

Larry Dupler organizes his trip around humpback whales. Dupler's a ship captain and co-founder of Orca Enterprises. The busy summer season for the Juneau based whale-watching venture is winding down.

Not only are tourists heading south, in September whales begin taking off for warmer waters. Part of Dupler's business involves tracking humpback whales in their seasonal migration.

"Maui is one of the most popular places for whale moms to have calves, calving usually in January. We try to do our timing so that we get there in February or early March to see baby whales.

"We take photo identifications of the babies and then try to re-identify them up here," he said.

The Alaska - Hawaii whale migration is as much as 3,500 miles through ocean and Humpbacks travel south between three and six miles per hour, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The journey takes four to eight weeks. Young whales are usually the first to arrive in Hawaii, pregnant females the last. They come back to Alaska in the spring.

Thankfully most humans can make the trip more quickly. Although Alaska Airlines doesn't fly to Hawaii, this summer it announced it was working to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly extended flights over water.

That approval could lead to the carrier adding flights to Hawaii.

Alaska born and bred Shannon Sweeney operates a travel agency in Juneau. She makes plans for about 50 people to go to Hawaii every year and says the Permanent Fund Dividend starts people thinking about taking vacations.

This year's $1,106 payouts start in October and more than 602,000 Alaskans will receive one. The Aloha state is a big beneficiary of the dividend disbursement. The Permanent Fund Corporation doesn't track where people spend their checks, but the state of Hawaii tracks the number of Alaskans who visit every year. Last year, about 40,000 Alaskans went to Hawaii, according to Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Sweeney's parents owned a second home in Hawaii and she went there for college. Alaska and Hawaii are part of a reciprocal program that allows residents of each to pay reduced tuition for undergraduate programs at state universities. Sweeney says the Big Island is popular with Southeast Alaskans. She attended University of Hawaii at Hilo and ended up staying on the Big Island for about a decade. "Both states used to be suspicious of outsiders, but that's changed now that tourism has become such an important part of both economies," she points out.

Not only do many Alaskans make Hawaii their second home, in Juneau, there's a community of Hawaiians. According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, about 120 Hawaiians make their full-time home here.

The two states have a good deal in common. They're majestic, geographically isolated and expensive. Horizon Lines is one of the nation's largest ocean shippers serving both states. It brings boots, hammers and military supplies to the ports of Anchorage, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor in Alaska, and to Honolulu.

Brian W. Taylor, Horizon's senior vice president for sales and marketing, says business to and from both states is strong--driven by goods going to military bases and big box stores.

In fact, the company is chartering five new vessels to supplement service between ports on the West Coast and Asia. That will mean more stops for Hawaii and Alaska starting in 2007.

None of the commodities that Horizon delivers come cheaply. The shipper charges its Alaskan customers an 18.5 percent fuel surcharge. Hawaiians pay 13 percent extra.

Juneau realtor Chuck Ramage spent two months in Oahu last winter. "Almost everybody that I know goes to Hawaii. I can't think of anyone who doesn't spend a fair amount of time there," he said.

Ramage believes high prices for gas and other commodities are small price to pay for a chance to visit what he calls paradise. He believes people who live in cold climates are sensorially deprived. In other words, they don't smell much.

"All that changes when you get off the plane in Hawaii-the fragrances, the warm air hits you, it's a spiritual experience," he said.