whale watching hawaii

Few activities are as exhilarating as a whale watching expedition. (Photo: Getty Images)


It’s Not a Fluke: Hawaii Really Is the Best Place to Spot Whales

Any semblance of cool nonchalance evaporates the minute your first whale is spotted. “Whale! One o’clock!” Cut to everyone on any given whale-watching tour scrambling to the side of the boat, cameras held aloft, to where a 40-ton humpback is slapping the water with its fin.

Encountering a whale — watching it breach, hearing the hisss as the behemoth exhales through the blowhole — there’s really nothing like it. If you’re in search of your own whale tale, head to Hawaii in the winter. An estimated 12,000 humpback whales visit each season, from November to May, with the most action happening between January and March.

Here’s how to check out these incredible animals, from all angles.

Where to See Whales

The majority of whales frolic off Maui — the island is whale central, basically — in the Auau Channel that lies between Lanai, Maui and Molokai. To get up close to whales (but not closer than 100 yards, as these are a protected species), head out onto the ocean with one of the island’s many whale-watching excursion operators, like Pacific Whale Foundation, which offers a variety of eco-tours.

A few things to consider when booking a tour: How big is the boat, and what aligns with your needs? For example, a raft is smaller and more personal but will be a bumpier ride. Kayaking is quiet and private, while a bigger boat is faster and can zoom from one location to another in search of whales. Does the company have a naturalist on board to provide information? Is there shade? Does the company donate to whale preservation? No matter what, bring sea-sickness medicine, a camera and a jacket or sweatshirt.

whale watching hawaii
Learn more about whales at Maui Ocean Center. (Photos: Maui Ocean Center)

To learn more about whales, stop by the Maui Ocean Center, which just unveiled its Humpbacks of Hawaii Interactive Exhibit and Sphere. Visitors experience interactive displays about the whales’ nomadic lifestyle and then enjoy a virtual whale encounter in the sphere. The sphere combines 3D glasses, 4K laser imagery and a screen even larger than the average humpback. Footage was filmed off of Maui over the course of two whale seasons.

Also, the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa has a whale season package, “Kohola in Ka’anapali” (koholā is the Hawaiian word for whale). The resort sprawls across 23 oceanfront acres, so guests often witness whales spouting and breaching just offshore. Oceanfront accommodations, two mai tais at the lobby bar and an educational whale talk by a marine biologist from the Maui Ocean Center are included in the package.

Still, the highlight of the package is the guided whale watch adventure for two, onboard an outrigger canoe from the Ka’anapali Surf Club. Tune in to hear male whales as they squeak, bellow and moan — those are their unique mating songs — and learn about ancient Hawaiian history and local folklore from your experienced guides.

whale watching hawaii
Hit the seas with on a whale watching adventure. (Photo: Courtesy of Teralani Sailing Adventures)

Thar She Blows! More Whale-Watching Spots

Maui may be best known as a place to catch a whale executing a pec slap, but many locations throughout the islands have prime viewing right from the shore. Two tips: One, pack binoculars. Two, do not stomp on the rental car’s brakes if you see whales offshore. Pull over first, and then, by all means, get stoked. Here’s where to go spotting:

  • Hawaii Island’s Kohala Coast and north Kona areas
  • On Kauai, try Shipwreck Beach, Spouting Horn Beach Park or Poipu Beach in front of the Sheraton Kauai Resort.
  • Oahu’s best spots are Makapuu Lighthouse, Halona Blowhole, and Diamond Head Lookout.
whale watching hawaii
Stay camera-ready at all times! (Photo: Getty Images)

Dive Deeper

Whale fans can mingle with marine experts, filmmakers and conservationists during Whale Tales: an annual four-day event that has been hosted at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, on Maui. The event offers photo safaris, whale-watching excursions, lectures and receptions, and best of all, the whole shebang is a benefit that raises funds for whale research and protection.