10 Tips for the Best Whale Watching in Hawaii – Maui Focus
Hawaii's warm Pacific waters aren’t just a popular destination for about eight million tourists annually. Each year, two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population migrate to the Islands to breed, calve, and nurse their young. Dubbed ‘Whale Season’, this phenomenon occurs every year between the months of November and May, reaching its peak January through March.
During this time in the Hawaiian Island chain, expect the horizon to be quite the spectacle! Whale activity such as tail slaps on the surface, spouts shooting water up to twenty feet in the air, and awe inspiring full body surface breaches by these 45-ton majestic mammals can be frequently seen from just about any island vantage point.
How to See Whales
1. Whale Watching Boat Trips
For those looking for the “up-close-and-personal” experience, a whale-watching boat trip is the way to go! Tour boats can approach humpback whales from as close as 100 yards away. Not only should you brace yourself for the spectacular show above the water, most boats offer the opportunity to hear the singing vocalization happening just beneath the surface via an underwater microphone. This is the ultimate in whale-watching experiences, and a must do for those looking for an unforgettable experience with this endangered species.
1. Look for smaller boats, such as sailboats or catamarans, for an intimate experience away from the masses! Sailboats also offer a pristine experience on the ocean; feel the tranquil breeze, soak in the Hawaiian sunrays, all without the loud hum of large engines.
2. Start Early! We know not everyone is excited at the thought of rising early while on vacation, however early morning trips (as opposed to afternoon trips) ensure the least wind and smoothest ride for your excursion. Don’t forget, we do reside in the latest US time zone – so while 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. may sound early, your body will most likely feel as though it’s much later!
3. Prone to seasickness? Don’t forget the Dramamine, seasickness patches, and ginger in any form. Equally, if not more important than those, don’t forget to stand at the rail’s edge and keep your eyes on the horizon! This will help your equilibrium immensely. Be sure not to enclose yourself inside (say, a bathroom!) as this will amplify the effects of your seasickness. Lastly, if you do happen to get sick, aim for over the back railing (on the lower level if you’re on a two tier boat!), and don’t fret or be embarrassed, the crews are all quite accustomed to it.
2. Lookout Points
Not a fan of being on a boat? Each island has a multitude of options for vantage points to view whale activity from land. These popular locations are often found cliff-side for an expansive ocean view. Get ready for the water show of a lifetime!
1. Don’t forget your binoculars! While whale activity in Hawaii can be easily seen with the blind eye, you’ll wish you had a pair of specs handy to get detail only usually seen up close.
2. Most lookout points in Hawaii are located right off of main travel roads. Be sure to park as to not impede with road travel, and be extremely careful not to walk within roadways while exiting and entering your vehicle.
3. Stick to the road most travelled! Most known lookout points have clear markers, those without paved parking lots will have obvious beaten paths with flatter areas better for parking. Skip the urge to drive or venture into blocked or undesignated areas off of cliff-side roads! Often these areas are heavily rocky, unstable, and unsecured and pose an unassuming safety risk.
Along the same line, be cautious while standing and walking cliff-side. Stay within markers and away from the cliff’s edge while whale watching and taking photos. While our Hawaiian lava rocks may look very stable – they can easily scramble and breakaway without notice.
4. VOG (volcanic emissions of sulfur dioxide) can appear when our trade winds die down (it looks like smog to those unfamiliar), and can affect your visibility greatly while whale watching. If the weather appears “voggy” save your land-based whale watching for a clearer day. Keep an eye on the palms, when they start swaying again that VOG will blow right on out!
3. Beach Watching
Ready to get those toes in the warm Hawaiian sand? You can still soak up the views from the comfort of your beach chair!
1. Just as before, don’t forget those binoculars for that perfect visual!
2. Aim to avoid busier beaches for more ambiance, and less shoreline activity that can detract from watching the horizon for a pod of whales!
3. Feeling adventurous? Paddle boarding is a great opportunity to enjoy one of our most popular ocean activities, while getting a great ocean view often with whale activity (it can occur much closer to shoreline that you may expect!).
Where to Spot Whales: Maui
Maui is home to some of the best whale watching in the world. The ocean channel between West and South Maui is protected by Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains, setting the stage for endless visibility and shallow waters ideal for humpback whales.
Besides an on-the-ocean view while aboard a whale watching excursion, the below are some of Maui’s best known sites for whale watching.
1. McGregor Point (Honoapiilani Hwy, near Ma’alaea)
This point is home to the McGregor Point lighthouse and sweeping ocean views!
Directions: Between Mile Markers #7 and Mile Marker #8, off the Honoapiilani “Pali” Highway, there is an unimproved rocky road that leads to the point overlook.
2. Papawai Scenic Lookout (Honoapiilani Hwy, near Ma’alaea)
This is the easiest lookout on island to access, and almost impossible to miss!
Directions: While travelling Lahaina-bound on the Honoapiilani “Pali” Highway, near Mile Marker #8 a turning lane entering the paved lookout parking lot.
3. Olowalu Area Beaches and Roadside (South of Lahaina)
This entire area of shallow water just along the towering West Maui Mountains is wonderful for viewing whale activity on a clear day.
Whether you simply pull the car over, stop beachside for a dip, or join a kayak whale watch excursion in these waters – you’re likely in for quite the show!
1.The sight of whale activity right offshore while driving is not uncommon here (especially in the Olowalu and Honoapiilani Highway areas)! We know it’s irresistible, but please be cognoscente and alert while driving. We like to call whale season “fender-bender” season, as distracted driving is the cause for many preventable accidents. Don’t waste your previous vacation day in the after affects of a vehicle collision – when in doubt, pull over to enjoy the view!
Stay tuned for the inside scoop on whale season for other islands!