They perform head lunges, they slap their tales and flukes and they perform acrobatic twists as they breach.
Every winter from November to May, with the peak of the season being from January to March, humpback whales—or "kohola" in Hawaiian—swim thousands of miles to mate, calve and nurse their young in the warm waters between Maui and the neighboring islands of Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i and Kaho‘olawe. While they are in Hawaiian waters, they don’t eat, since the winter months are a period of fasting for them. Once they return to colder waters in the north, they resume feeding on krill, plankton and small fish—which they can consume up to 5,500 pounds in one day.
Once a favorite target for whalers, humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction. Before an international ban on whaling was enacted in 1966, 90 percent of the humpback whale population had been decimated. Created by Congress in 1992, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary provides protection for these massive mammals and their habitat. Today, visitors have the opportunity to see these giant marvels via a chartered boat or by visiting the Humpback Whale National Sanctuary Visitor Center in Kihei.
Seeing one of the world’s largest mammals in the open water is a thrill, and tour boats can legally get you as close as 100 yards—the length of a football field—away from them, for your safety as well as the whales. While that may seem far, remember that a humpback whale can grow to a length of 52 feet and weigh about 80,000 pounds.
Most whale-watching tours will depart from Lahaina and Maalaea harbors and cruise through the Auau Channel, between Maui and Lanai. There is a good chance that you’ll be able to see a pod of humpback whales or a mother with its calf. As many as 10,000 whales could be in the area over the course of the season, and since adult humpbacks surface about every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe, and calves need to come up for air about every three to five minutes, so it’s a guarantee there will never be a dull moment while on a whale-watch tour.
Humpback whales are also known for the mysterious and haunting sounds they make underwater, called “whale songs.” These complex songs vary in frequency, and scientists are still trying to understand why the humpbacks “sing,” sometimes continuously for hours.
How to See the Whales
There are a variety of ways in which you can catch a glimpse of Hawai‘i’s humpback whales. Boat tours and whale watching cruises have become increasingly popular. Here are a few of our choices:
Lahaina Cruise Company
Experience the excitement of whale watching with Lahaina Cruise Company’s two-hour “Hawaii Ocean Project” cruise. An enclosed main cabin and upper observation deck reveal 360-degree views. 808.667.6165.
Pacific Whale Foundation
The non-profit group offers a variety of tours at different price points aboard a high-tech luxury catamaran that is equipped with hydrophones—so you might be able to hear the humpbacks “singing.” Informative and fun, each two-hour whale watch is led by a team of certified Marine Naturalists, who explain and interpret the social behavior of humpback whales. Departures from both Lāhainā and Mā‘alaea harbors. 800.942.5311.
From December 15 to April 15, Gemini offers two daily whale watches: from 8 to 10 am, and from 4 to 6 pm. Marine naturalists provide insightful facts and information, and answer questions as guests listen to “whale songs” live on Gemini’s hydrophone. 800.820.7245.
Humpback Whale National Sanctuary Visitor Center
Administered by the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), the sanctuary is located from the shoreline to the 100-fathom isobath—600 ft. depth—in the four island area of Maui; Penguin Bank; and off the north shore of Kauaʻi; the north and south shores of Oahu; and the north Kona and Kohala coast of Hawaii Island. The sanctuary is not only home to humpback whales each winter, but is also home to a variety of other marine life including Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles, fish and corals. 726 South Kihei Rd., 808.879.2818 or 800.831.4888
Whale Watching Tips from NOAA
In Hawaii, humpback whales can be easily spotted from land or sea as they frequent Hawaii’s nearshore waters. Remember, by regulation, humpback whales cannot be approached closer than 100 yards. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy your whale watching experience.
Check the weather conditions—Some weather conditions, such as increased wind and sea state, may decrease your likelihood of spotting whales. Pay attention to weather reports prior to heading outside.
Sun protection—When watching whales always be sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect your skin and eyes. Make sure your hat and sunglasses are secure so they won’t get lost. Polarized sunglasses are the best type to use for whale watching, but any sunglasses will be helpful. The combination of the sun and reflection from the water can increase your chances of getting sunburn even on a cloudy day so be sure to use sunscreen on any exposed skin as well as lip protection with sunblock.
Camera—Capturing photos or video of your whale watching experience can help you share your experience with others, but just keep in mind that your camera could get wet or at a minimum will be exposed to salt air. Also, don’t focus all your attention on getting the photos or you may miss the whales and the fun! If you do decide to take a camera, a camera with a zoom lens is best.
Binoculars/Spotting Scope—Bring binoculars if you have them. Once you have spotted a whale with your naked eye use the binoculars to focus in and watch its behavior. Keep in mind that using binoculars on a boat for an extended period of time could increase chances of seasickness. If you’re viewing whales from the shoreline, a spotting scope which can be mounted on a tripod may come in handy as well.
Food and Beverages—Bring bottled water and snacks on your excursion (whether by land or sea). Some whale watching boats may have food available so find out before you head out and plan accordingly based on the amount of time you will be gone. It’s also a great idea to take a bag along for your trash - please be sure to keep all trash from entering the water and endangering sea life.
Clothing—Depending upon weather conditions, you may want to consider bringing a light jacket to break the chill of the wind. Also be sure to wear appropriate footwear. If watching whales from a shoreline location that requires hiking closed-toed shoes are recommended.
Seasickness Remedies—If you are prone to seasickness, consider taking motion sickness medicine prior to your trip (consult a doctor to find out which type is best for you). Most medications should be taken at least one hour before the trip. Once on the boat be sure to drink enough water to stay hydrated. Sipping on carbonated beverages can help seasickness as can eating crackers, bread, and products containing ginger (candy or cookies). Other special products such as motion sickness wristbands can be purchased at most drug stores. Keeping your eye on the horizon and keeping yourself cool throughout the trip can also help with seasickness.
Spotting Whales—Humpback whales can be seen performing a variety of behaviors during the winter months in Hawai`i. Begin by scanning the surface of the ocean from left to right, looking for the humpback’s blow which can be 10-20 feet tall (for an adult humpback). Depending upon ocean conditions, the blow can be spotted easily. Adult humpbacks surface approximately every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe; however they can remain submerged for longer periods of time. Calves will surface every three to five minutes to breathe. Once you have spotted a humpback, use your binoculars to get a closer view of their behavior. If you’re lucky you will have the opportunity to see a whale breach right in front of your eyes.