The Hawaiian Islands bring all sorts of visitors from around the world for its idyllic weather, beautiful beaches and unparalleled landscapes. If the mystery and beauty of marine life is one of your reasons for a visit to the islands, you’ll want to make sure you’ve planned for the right time to visit Hawaii.
Hawaii is known as a top destination for whale watching, especially for an estimated two-thirds of the North American population of Humpback Whales that vacation in Hawaii to breed, calve and nurse their young after a long trip through the ocean to the Gulf of Alaska and back.
And while the whales do take an extended reprieve near the islands, they are not there year round, and there may be better areas than others to catch a glimpse at their massive beauty.
So read on to discover what is the best Hawaiian island for whale watching and start planning your Hawaii adventure right away!
Like most animals that migrate, the Humpback whales move around the Pacific Ocean based on food sources.
During summer months, the whales will be found around their feeding grounds in the Polar regions of the Pacific where food sources of krill, plankton and small fish are abundant.
When the harsh winters set in, their food sources become scarce, sending the whales to travel more than 3000 miles to find the comfort of the tropics with most of them (scientists estimate two-thirds of North American Humpback population) finding the islands around Hawaii to be the perfect place to take a much needed vacation (and really, who wouldn’t, right?).
So to get the most out of your whale-watching experience, you’ll want to make sure you’re vacationing the same time as the Humpbacks. Officially, whale-watching season begins in November and ends in May.
It is more rare to see the whales in November. According to Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s website, beginning in mid to late November, mother whales nursing their calves arrive first in mid to late November followed by juveniles and newly weaned yearlings.
Then, adult males arrive, along with adult females without young. The last to arrive will be the pregnant females who will stay in Alaska to feed until the very last possible time before making the trip to their summer home.
It is also less likely to see the whales in May as they will all be gone by the end of the month. Peak months for whale-watching are January and February.
In the summer months of June through September you’re unlikely to see any, as they have all gone back north to feed their bellies again.
The tropical waters are not necessarily good for feeding, but are good places to breed, birth and wean the young. It is an amazing sight to see these animals swim, flip their tails and frolic in the ocean waters.
It can become addicting so if there’s more you want to do, you’ll have to pull yourself away.
Just as important as when to see the whales is where, so let’s explore the possibilities here.
Yes! The Big Island is one of the most popular islands to come to see the majestic Humpback whales and literally a BIG
reason people want to go to Hawaii. But you must be strategic about it.
The Big Island is, well, big, and not all coasts are the same, so make sure you know where to be!
Some of the best areas for viewing whales on the Big Island are Hilo Bay on the east side and the area north of Kona and up the Kohala Coast.
The Kohala Coast is frequently known as the best area of Hawaii for whale watching. Some say Kohala is Hawaiian for the Humpback whale, and there is evidence to show that this beautiful beast has been visiting the waters near Hawaii since ancient times.
While the beginning of the season is the same as above, November, the end of the season appears to be on the earlier side in April.
Peak months, again, are January and February.
The whales are very active during the day, but reports have shown that early birds, before 8:00am, see more whales on average, but many others say they have seen more activity around sunset.
Bottom line is that you should keep binoculars on, take a tour or just listen for the songs of the whales all day long.
And while you’re whale-watching in Kona, you should make sure to head to Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site which translates to “Temple on the Hill of the Whale”, and according to explorationhawaii.com, “This site preserves the ruins of Hawaii’s last major ancient temple.”
It is a must-see, hand-built, historic landmark in this breathtaking part of the island.
For some of the best shoreline viewing, plan your trip in February to the beautiful western coastline of Maui where many visitors have seen the magic of the whales simply looking out the window from their coastal resort or vacation rental.
Well, you certainly can book your trip to see the whales any time during the whale watching season, but in February on Maui, you are bound to get swept away in some activity related to the Maui Whale Festival with the proceeds supporting Pacific Whale Foundation's humpback whale research in Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific, marine education programs for local school children, as well as conservation programs including efforts to keep marine debris out of our oceans, prevent vessel-whale collisions, and end whaling worldwide.
Maui Whale Festival kicks off the first weekend in February with a 1 mile, 5K, 10K, or 10 mile walk/run course to engage all levels and abilities. But the festivities go on all month long including a film festival another weekend and an Harbor Part in Maalaea Bay yet another.
And if you feel like venturing away from the crowd around Maalaea to find other ways to look for the majestic creatures slapping and diving through the waters, then take the 30 to 45 minute drive on Highway 30 between Maalaea Bay and Lahaina.
But heed a word of warning...be careful when you’re driving. It is easy to get lost in the mesmerizing beauty of the ocean and these magnificent creatures of the sea and forget that you’re operating a vehicle.
And if you think this would never be you — don’t count on it — but also, watch out for others who will likely be doing the same.
Yes, you can see the whales while in Kauai, too! The best, whale-populated areas are around the north and west coasts of the island. Ashley and I can attest to that as we enjoyed watching these magnificent creatures breach the ocean from our balcony in Princeville.
Kilauea Lighthouse on the north side of Kauai is officially designated a humpback whale marine sanctuary by the Federal government.
And there are also opportunities to see whale activity in and around Poipu which, according to some travelers, houses the best beaches in the world.
Poipu is located on the southern coast of Kauai; while there, scope out the whales in Shipwreck’s Beach, Makahuena Point, Poipu Beach and Spouting Horn.
During whale-watching season you don’t have to get in the water to experience the playful activities of the Humpback whales, but if you don’t mind getting out in the open waters, then you’ll want to book yourself on a tour that will take you as close as 100 feet from these alluring animals.
If you’re near Kona, check out Capt. Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watching Tours. Captain Dan is a whale researcher, conservationist, and whale watch captain. Join Captain Dan as he personally leads and educates you on the 3-hour tour doing what he loves and sharing that information with you.
And even if you’ve come too early or too late and hear “the whales are all gone,” he says to just give him a call, and he’ll let you know if that’s true or, most likely, not. Cost: $120
Pride of Maui Whale Watching Tour: The online price of $47 includes a 2 hour ride in a glass-bottom boat, gear for snorkeling along a coral reef, and lunch. There is also an option for a sunset, adults-only cruise with cocktails and music.
Leilani Whale Watching Small Group Tour: This 4.5 hour tour leaves at 7:30am from Maalaea Harbor for $109, but you can save by booking online. The generous price point even includes breakfast, lunch and a selection of beverages including some alcohol if that’s your thing.
Or if you are looking for more of an active whale watching experience, contact these folks
Hawaiian Paddle Sports to head out on an Outrigger Canoe, kayak or a Stand Up Paddleboard. Their tours are a little more expensive ranging from $139-$149, but it will be an experience you’ll never forget!
Maui Eco Tours These tours also offer a Kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard experience with prices ranging from $74-$199 depending on the tour. This company also has two different tour times for families with younger children and one for adults (age 16+) only.
Capt Andy’s cruise takes you along the Na Pali Coast. Four to 5.5 hour tours are offered throughout the day and include a meal. Prices range from $69 for children to $179 per adult. They also have a two-hour Sunset cruise option.
Blue Dolphin Kauai offers a 2-hour Poipu Whale Watching Tour for $89 (you can save by booking online in advance). This 2-hour tour includes hydrophones for hearing the whales, appetizers, water, juice, soft drinks, and for the above 21 crowd, unlimited beer, wine & Mai Tais are available.
Whether you use one of these options or find another that fits your family and budget better, whale watching in Hawaii is a magical experience that can easily be checked off your bucket list if you plan for it.
The US Navy was kind enough to make Andrew live in Hawaii for 3 years spending most of his time in the Kaneohe area. When he wasn't working on helicopters he was playing baseball around the island, falling off his surfboard and getting speeding tickets on his motorcycle in Waikiki (follow the rules of the road kids!). Older and just a little wiser, he prefers the slower pace and never ending beauty of Kauai!
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