Maui Whale Watching Tips
Every winter, the North Pacific Humpback Whales migrate from the frigid waters of Alaska to mate, give birth, and bask in the warm seas of the Hawaiian islands, enjoying their own sort of tropical vacation. They are our most treasured annual visitors, and Maui whale watching becomes an obsession during this period. Although the first humpbacks are usually sighted sometime in October and the last ones linger until June (can you blame them?) before heading north again, the “official” whale season is mid-December to mid-May. (Most whale watching boat excursions stop operating in April, as the number of whales declines.) Peak months are January, February and March — the very best time for Maui whale watching.
As of 2016, the North Pacific Humpback is no longer deemed an Endangered Species, but they are still protected by both State and Federal law. In fact, the waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands are a National Marine Sanctuary for humpback whales. Certain ocean activities in Maui are prohibited during whale season. For instance, jet ski and parasailing operators are closed December 15 to May 15 in order to protect the whales from potential injury from high-speed watercraft and propellers. It is illegal when in the water (by boat or any other means) to approach closer than 100 yards of a humpback whale, and within 1,000 feet when in an aircraft. It is illegal to harass or disrupt the normal activity or behavior of a humpback whale in any way. However, there is no such law governing the whales themselves, and often a curious whale will approach a Maui whale watching tour boat or unsuspecting kayaker, providing an unforgettable “close encounter” for those fortunate enough to be on board.
The sighting of a whale is an awesome experience, with adult humpbacks measuring some 40 to 50 feet long and weighing around 40 tons. On Maui, you can enjoy the beauty of these magnificent creatures by land or by sea. During the height of whale season you can readily view whale activity at any time of day just by standing on shore and looking out to sea. For a closer view, whale watching cruises provide an exciting and informative experience. But be aware that reputable boat captains will respect the whales and adhere to the law by not approaching closer than 100 yards. So watch them, photograph them, be awestruck by them…but don’t expect to pet a whale in Maui!
Maui Whale Watching Tips:
There are many ways to experience their vast size, majestic nature, and grace. I bet some of these will surprise you!
- Watching Whales From Land: While whales may be present anywhere in Maui’s waters, the most whale sightings are generally from the south and west shores of the island. Just stand on shore (or on the lanai of your accommodations) and look out to sea. Scan the ocean surface for what appears to be a spout of steam. There’s a whale there…and probably more than one. Keep watching those “steam spouts.” If you’re patient, you’ll probably be rewarded with a flipper coming out of the water or a sleek back curving up and over, ending in the flip of a fluke (whale tail). If you are REALLY lucky, you’ll see a whale breaching (pictured here)–leaping into the air and slapping the water as it comes down—the ultimate in whale sightings!
- Watching Whales From Your Car: Often you will see whales spouting or breaching along the shore as you drive on Maui’s coastal roads. Please use caution. I know it’s thrilling, but don’t slam on your brakes, swerve suddenly, or slow to a crawl in order to snap a picture. Whale season car accidents are all too numerous on Maui! Slow down and pull off the road, so you can enjoy the whale activity without obstructing drivers behind you or endangering yourself!
- Insider Tip: The cliffside stretch of highway coming around the bend between West Maui and Central Maui is referred to as “the Pali.” This road provides a lot of whale watching opportunities for your passengers because you are driving along 100-plus-foot-high cliffs overlooking the ocean. But, the driver trying to whale watch here is one of the TOP causes for accidents on this road. The best scenic outlook on the island is located here. Pull off and park in the designated area for a safe view of the whales that everyone can enjoy!
- Watching Whales from a Helicopter: This may sound odd, but I’m here to tell you this is one of the coolest ways to see the whales! As you float through the air on a magnificent helicopter ride, look down. When you’re flying over the ocean, you can see the whales from the top! Look for the males trying to court females, and mamas teaching the young how life in the ocean works. The sheer comparison of a 40-foot-long whale to a boat below can be shocking.
- Watching Whales From a Boat or Raft: There are numerous wonderful whale watching trips you can book on any of the local boat companies. Enjoy the ride out of the harbor for gorgeous views of the island behind you, and get ready to be wow’d! Each whale watching excursion typically includes a whale expert on board to share interesting fact about the whales, answer your questions, and if you’re lucky, they bust out their hydrophone so you can hear the whale song in the waters below! My favorite are the smaller rafts, which fit less people, but allow for a much closer encounter, if the whales get curious enough to check you out!
- Photographing Whales with a Professional Wildlife Photographer: No one quite knows the whales like someone who has followed them his whole life. Rob Owen has photographed whales all over the world and has begun offering Photo Safari tours from Lahaina Harbor to help you experience the humpback whales in a new way. If you’re an amateur photographer, aspiring professional, or ready to make your next submission into National Geographic, this is for you. Learn about how to predict their behavior, prepare your camera settings, and benefit from the boat captain steering the boat in a way for you to get the PERFECT shot. Watch our Facebook Live on a sunset tour with these massive creatures, while the whale experts tell us more about humpback whale behavior.
- Watching Whales from a Kayak: You really cannot comprehend the sheer size of these creatures until you’re bobbing in a kayak on the surface above them! Peddling in a kayak on a Boomkanani Kayak Tour is truly a unique experience. Learn about the island and the many sea creatures from the expert guides as you peddle off the coast of Maui, and keep an eye out for spouts in the distance!
- Hearing their Whale Song Underwater: If you are a scuba diver, snorkeler, or ocean swimmer, you can actually hear the whales while underwater. Put your head under the surface, quiet yourself, your movements, and your breathing. Listen. Whale song (the sounds of humpback whales) carries for great distances underwater, and if there are whales in the area you might hear them singing—a magical and haunting sound.
For more information on Maui whale watching, visit MauiWhaleWatching.com!
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