Hawaii is known for a lot of things: beaches, waterfalls, rainbows, lush green mountains, but my favorite thing to see in Hawaii are…WHALES! Humpback whales migrate to Hawaii from Alaska every winter to mate and give birth in the warm waters. And spotting them (either from the shore or from a boat) is usually a highlight of anyone traveling to Hawaii during this time of year.
So where are the best spots to see them? Which cruises offer the best viewing experience? And when exactly is the best time to see them? Here’s everything you need to know!
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When is whale season?
Whale season usually stretches from mid December through mid April. Of course the whales aren’t quite aware of the thousands of tourists in Hawaii waiting for their arrival, so they come when they want to. The first arrivals could start showing up as early as late November, but they’re few and far between. The end of December through January is when they reallllly start to arrive. February is PEAK whale season. In prime areas, you can sit on the beach and watch them play all day long. By mid April, the majority have already started their migration back to Alaska (where they feed), but there could be a few stragglers that hang around into May.Where is the best island to see whales?
In a word…Maui. In peak season, the whales can be seen throughout all of the Hawaiian Islands, but they’re undoubtedly the most concentrated around Maui. The channels between Molokai, Lanai, and Maui are especially shallow and warm so they’re super attractive to whales with babies in tow (BABY WHALES!!!). If your main priority in coming to Hawaii is to see whales, Maui is your best bet. If you’re just casually interested in seeing the whales, any of the islands are fine.
Do you have to go out on a boat to see them?
Not at all! Especially during February, there are many beaches were you can see them from the shore. My friend has even seen whales breaches from the AIRPLANE before. Your chances of seeing whales from any beach of the island aren’t the same though. Generally, whales prefer calm, warm water (kind of like people!) so they’re definitely more attracted to certain parts of each island. On Maui, the south side beaches (Kihei and Wailea) and west side (especially Kapalua) are the best areas to see them. Sometimes the whales come close to shore (let’s say 100 yards), but most of the time you’ll be seeing them from a distance.
What if I want a closer look?
There are a TON of companies that take visitors (and locals alike!) out on boats to get a closer look at the whales. Humpback whales are protected in Hawaii so all boats are required to stay 100 yards away from whales (unless the whale approaches the boat), but (despite extremely rare circumstances) that’s MUCH closer than you’ll be if you’re viewing them from the beach.
Do you have to go out on a really tiny boat?
There are a plethora of options for whale watching excursions. Everything from kayaks to large double decker boats. The majority of people end up on a large boat (100+ guests) as it’s the cheapest option with the most availability. The main benefit of going out on a boat like this is that people who are prone to seasickness usually experience fewer symptoms as it’s a calmer ride.
There are also a lot of tours that take you out on a catamaran (capacity of 25-50). And of course, there are the small boats (Zodiac style ocean rafts).
No matter what kind of boat you’re on, the vessel can’t get closer than 100 yards so a small boat isn’t going to get you closer than a big boat, but you may have a more intimate experience since there are fewer people on the boat and the boat can move a lot faster.
Personally, my favorite way to go is on a catamaran. It’s a sizeable enough boat that it feels very stable and “safe” while offering all of the creature comforts (bathroom, galley, snacks and drinks, etc.) yet there are not so many people onboard that if feels crowded.
Which company has the best excursions?
There are a lot of great commercial companies offering whale excursions, but I personally feel like there’s one choice on Maui: PacWhale Eco-Adventures. PacWhale’s ocean ecotours include snorkel trips, sunset cruises, and of course, WHALE WATCHING. The best part is all of the profits of their tours go straight to the Pacific Whale Foundation. And each cruise has a certified Marine Naturalist so you’re sure to get an education along with your entertainment. Most cruises depart from Lahaina or Ma’alaea in the morning. My favorite cruise is the Whale Watch Sail, but check out all of these options:
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What about snorkeling?
Most “whale watching” tours are exclusively for whale watching, but if you’re wanting to knock out snorkeling AND whale watching in ONE tour…here’s my favorite option. The Sunrise Deluxe Snorkel with Kai Kanani. This is my favorite snorkel excursion on Maui (read all of the reasons here), and if you go during whale season, it’s likely that you’ll see a bunch on your way out and back to Molokini.
Tips for having a good time?
Here’s my #1 tip for whale watching: CHECK YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Whales are wild animals and while they can be somewhat predictable, they still have a mind of your own. While many companies will guarantee whale sightings (or let you come back for free), it is impossible for them to guarantee spotting any kind of specific behavior. Spotting a breech (where the whale jumps out of the water) is the holy grail and while it does happen frequently, it’s also possible that you may not see one during the two hours that you’re out on the boat. This isn’t the fault of the crew or captain, it’s just what makes whale watching so exciting.
So before you go, check your expectations. Remember…the whales are just out there doing their whale thing. They are unaware of your once in a lifetime vacation and your bucket list. If your vacation is going to be ruined if you don’t get to look a baby whale in the eye, you’re probably going to go home disappointed. But that doesn’t stop me from having “staring contest with a baby humpback whale” on my bucket list ; )
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