One of the most charismatic of whale species is the humpback. With their long flukes like dancers' arms, their exciting and acrobatic leaps from the water, and their — let's be honest here — adorable frowny faces, humpbacks steal our hearts. In fact, they even get their own holiday. World Whale Day honors the return of humpback whales to Maui during their seasonal migration.

The waters off of Maui are the principle mares for mating and calving for humpback whales in the U.S., so the return of these charismatic and gentle giants every year is a wonderful event. World Whale Day is celebrated on Feb. 15, and in Maui features a parade, performances, food and festivities. And there's a whale-sized reason to celebrate this day: humpbacks almost never came back at all.

humpback whale underwater

Photo: Shutterstock

Like many whale species, humpbacks were the target of commercial hunters. During the 19th century, the whales were hunted all along the coast, and as the technology of ships and weapons became more sophisticated, the whales didn't stand much of a chance. By 1966, the species was nearly wiped out with only about 5,000 individuals remaining worldwide. Thankfully, this was the year that the Whaling Commission issued a ban on their hunting to prevent extinction. Since protections were put in place, humpback numbers have rebounded to around 20,000 individuals today.

It will still be a long time before humpbacks reach their historic numbers, but in the meantime, whale watchers have been excited to see the species' numbers grow and have made the whales' feeding activity into a spectator sport.

humpback whale watching

Photo: Shutterstock

California has seen amazing activity from humpback whales in the last few years, with feeding frenzies becoming almost a common sight during their stay along the coast. Kayakers, whale-watchers and photographers came out in droves to witness the activity. And divers have gotten a little too close to the bubble nets of feeding humpbacks, almost becoming part of the meal themselves. Actually, how humpbacks feed is interesting in and of itself.

A pod of humpbacks will locate a school of fish. Working in unison, they will swim in a circle below the fish, blowing bubbles in a "net" to corral the fish and force them toward the surface. As the fish gather into a tight ball, the whales make their move and lunge upward, mouths open, to catch as many fish as they can in a huge gulp.

humpback whale pod feeding

Photo: Shutterstock

The whales attract other animals to the bait balls they create. Sea birds are all like, "Yesss!!"

birds near whales feeding

Photo: Mike Baird/Flickr

And sea lions are all like, "Whoooaaaa!!"

sea lions curious while swimming

Photo: Mike Baird/Flickr

And kayakers are all like, "This is awesome! Please don't land on me..."

humpback whale feeds near kayakers

Photo: Mike Baird/Flickr

The return of humpback whales not only to Maui but to the list of "Least Concern" is a wonderful thing to celebrate. You can find out more about World Whale Day and humpbacks by visiting the Pacific Whale Foundation.

humpback whale near morro rock

Photo: Mike Baird/Flickr

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Humpbacks make a splash on World Whale Day
There's much to celebrate when it comes to the charismatic and graceful humpback whale.