Not very many things can get people excited for winter. Unless you’re in Hawaii where you don’t have to worry about blizzards or snow, let alone the cold. Winter continues to be pure tropical bliss on the islands, something that attracts all sorts of visitors, including humpback whales. Fresh off their summer feeding frenzy in the North Pacific, humpbacks make the 4-6-week trek to the islands for winter breeding (suddenly a 6-hour flight doesn’t sound so bad). Hawaii’s year-round subtropical climate makes it the perfect environment for their breeding purposes, so year after year, humpback whales seek refuge in Hawaii’s warm weather and honestly, who can blame them?
Humpback whales specifically seek out the shallow waters of the Au’au channel west of Maui to birth and raise their calves, which makes the shores of Maui front-row seating to check out these gargantuan creatures in their natural habitat. Hawaii is a sanctuary for the once endangered humpback whales, meaning they are protected by law – allowing whales the peace of existence and visitors the safety of observation.
Whales can be seen spouting and breaching all along South Maui, from Wailea through the beach parks along South Kihei Road (there’s even a statue of a humpback at Kalama Park for a keen photo opportunity). Those enamored with history can stop by the Visitor Center and check out the exhibits and archives or sit down for a lecture by marine biologists.
The Pali highway is the perfect vantage point as the coastal elevation makes their breaching pectoral fins easier to spot. Humpbacks surface every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe, while calves do so every 3-5 minutes. Calves are still developing their motor skills and tend to frolic and play along the surface, so keep your eyes peeled. Don’t forget to stop in Lahaina – the whaling capital of the 1800s. A drive down Front Street will give tourists a sense of the significant role whales have had in Maui’s history.
Of course, the only way to get an up-close encounter is to go on a whale-watching tour and Maui has no shortage of them. These boat tours cruise right along the Au’au channel, so you are guaranteed a sighting. Legally, these charters can only get within 100 yards of any spotted whales and must shut off their engines to allow for safe, uninterrupted passage. It’s up to the whales if they want to get closer, which they often do in a phenomenon known as “whale mugging.” Visitors tend to get their money’s worth on such occasions.
Hawaii Ocean Project and Makai Adventures come equipped for these encounters to maximize the experience: 360-degree observation decks, onboard hydrophones to listen in on the songs whales sing to each other, and extension poles for anyone sporting GO Pros for the ultimate selfie. Ultimate Whale Watch provides a more intimate viewing experience (no more than 12 people per raft) which you can enjoy without the encumbrance of crowds. Elsewhere, Pacific Whale Foundation offers both group and personalized tours led by marine biologists. Booking through them also contributes to their cause (half of the fee goes to the on-going whale research).
Maui Sailing Canoe and Hawaiian Paddle Sports offers thrill-seekers the chance to paddle out and meet the whales themselves, accompanied by seasoned voyagers. These kayaking and canoe tours come highly recommended as there is less disturbance on the waters, meaning visitors can expect a much closer look than boats can permit. Even if whale-watching isn’t your thing, almost any boat charter during peak season doubles as a whale-watching tour. Insider tip: early morning snorkel charters tend to squeeze in time for a mini-whale watching session. Arriving a little early never hurts.
Sunrise or sunset, there really is no ideal time of day to get the most out of whale watching. Only the right time of year, and the best place to view them (such as from the lanai of your Kapalua home or Kaanapali condo.) With up to 10,000 humpback whales migrating to Hawaii over the course of the season, it’s not a question of whether you will see them, but how many you can. Tis the season, so what are you waiting for?