Humpback Whales Return to Maui

How to spot these majestic creatures in the open ocean

Make one of your National Geographic-type fantasies come true by booking an exciting whale-watching tour while you’re on Maui this winter. The waters between Maui and the neighboring islands of Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe are teeming with thousands of humpback whales right now, and you can head out on the high seas to watch these gentle giants breach, slap their tails and flukes against the water, and see water spout from their blowholes as they breathe and surface for air. It’s amazing that you don’t have to be in a cold climate to witness the beauty and magnitude of these magnificent animals, so take the opportunity while you’re here in paradise to be within the vicinity of one of the largest mammals that has ever lived.

Humpback whales are known for their acrobatic antics, 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 the whales.’ While that may sound far, remember that a humpback whale can grow to a length of 52 feet and weigh about 80,000 pounds—that’s as heavy as a semi-truck. When an animal that huge leaps out of the water, it propels from the depths of the ocean with such force that it looks like a missile is being launched from below the sea. In other words, you’ll have no problem noticing the whales’ presence when they choose to make themselves seen.

Most whale-watching tours will depart from Lahaina and Maalaea Harbors and cruise through the Auau Channel, between Maui and Lanai, which is where humpback whales congregate every winter to mate, frolic and give birth in the shallow waters. 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 10-15 minutes to breathe, and calves need to come up for air about every 3-5 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.

Pack your camera, a sweater and binoculars, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime! 

If you're lucky, you may spot one of these humpbacks up close and personal. (©Pacific Whale Foundation)

Chartered Tours

»Lahaina Cruise Company: Two-hour excursions aboard the Maui Princess, a 118-foot luxury yacht with an air-conditioned deck that is also equipped with an underwater “Whale Cam” and monitors for onboard viewing. 877.500.6284.

»Maui Classic Charters: Tours combine a cruise aboard the Four Winds II—which has a waterslide and glass bottom—with a snorkeling excursion and barbecue lunch, 808.879.8188.

»Pacific Whale Foundation: Offers a variety of tours at different price points aboard a high-tech power catamaran that is equipped with hydrophones—so you might be able to hear the humpbacks “singing.” Departures from both Lahaina and Maalaea Harbors, 808.249.8811.

»Ultimate Whale Watch: This tour for the adrenaline junkie: It accommodates only 18 passengers aboard a 30-foot, rigid hulled inflatable raft. This tour is not advised for small children or pregnant women, 808.667.5678. 

Each whale can be identified by the unique black and white pattern on the underside of the flukes. (©Pacific Whale Foundation)

Humpback Whales Trivia

»Every winter, humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii, a journey that’s about 3,000 miles.

»While they are in Hawaiian waters, humpback whales 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 of in one day.

»The humpback had long been a favorite target for whalers and was hunted nearly to extinction. Before an international ban on whaling was enacted in 1966, 90 percent of the humpback whale population had been decimated.

»This type of whale has been revered by indigenous people of Alaska, Canada, Southern California as well as by Native Hawaiians. The Hawaiian word for whale is kohola, and it is mentioned in the epic creation chant, the Kumulipo. The kohola was believed to be manifestation of the deity Kanaloa, god of the ocean and the underworld.