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Top Whale-Watching Tours on Oahu

Our Where Hawaii editor gives tips on seeing the humpback whales.

Dar she blows! With whale-watching season at a peak the next few months, we decided to board the Star of Honolulu in hopes of catching a glimpse of these majestic mammals in their natural environment. We were told that the day before, only a few pod sightings were detected. Not on our watch.

Much to the excitement and screeches of guests—including us—who scurried from port to starboard, stern to bow with cameras ready to fire, we saw several pods that day, some flipping their flukes and all shooting plumes of water 10-20 feet straight into the air.

Star of Honolulu naturalist keeps an eye out for whales. (Courtesy Star of Honolulu)

“An average adult humpback female can grow up to 45-feet long, with the longest on record at 88-feet long,” the ship’s certified naturalist and marine biologist, Heidi, told the crowd as we set sail into the open waters. “And an average male grows to 42-feet long.”

And if that’s not impressive, Heidi said the humpback’s fluke spans 15 feet across, which is approximately a third of the width of the Star of Honolulu. Other pieces of trivia: these baleens actually have a bit of hair in front of their head and they don’t have teeth. Sounds a lot like old age. All kidding aside, though, to see a humpback whale 100-200 yards away is awe-inspiring. And to think that they play in our backyard every winter … well, let’s just say, “Lucky we live Hawai‘i.”

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- watching 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.

Tips for Whale Watching

»Check the weather conditions. Some weather conditions, such as increased wind and choppy seas, may decrease your likelihood of spotting whales.
»When watching whales always be sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect your skin and eyes.   
»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. 
»Seasickness remedies. If you are prone to seasickness, consider taking motion sickness medicine at least an hour prior to boarding the vessel.
»Clothing. Yes, you’re in Hawai’i but it’s still a good idea to bring a light jacket to break the chill of the wind.

The pectoral fin of the Humpback is the longest of any whale, reaching 15 feet in length. (©Hawaii Tourism Authority/Joe West)

Chartered Tours

To see a humpback whale 100-200 yards away is awe-inspiring. And to think that they play in our backyard every winter … well, let’s just say, “Lucky we live Hawai‘i.” Here are a few of our picks.

Star of Honolulu
With its 60-foot-high observation deck, four walk-around decks and three types of stabilizers, Star of Honolulu provides a comfortable atmosphere for a whale-watching adventure. Certified naturalists provide educational facts about these massive mammals. 800.334.6191or 808.983.STAR(7827) starofhonolulu.com

Atlantis Adventures
Naturalists provide narration and help spot humpbacks. Large panoramic windows allow for great whale-watching viewing. Transportation from select Waikīkī hotels is available. Departures from Pier 6, Aloha Tower Marketplace Harbor. 888.381.0237. atlantisadventures.com

Wild Side Specialty Tours
Deemed one of the Top 5 whale-watching companies in America by CBS,  Wild Side Specialty Tours offers an intimate whale-watching experience with charters of only six to 10 guests. Departs from Wai‘anae Boat Harbor. 808.306.7273.