Our tips for whale watching in Hawaiʻi

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Each winter, from November to May, between 8,000 and 12,000 North Pacific humpback whales—or koholā in ʻōlelo Hawaiiʻi-arriving in Hawaiʻi, completing a six-week voyage from Alaska to the shallow warm waters surrounding the islands.

And who can blame them?

The first koholā of the 2022-2023 season has already been spotted in South Maui, a little earlier than usual. Two men aboard a private boat off Kīhei capture footage of a 30ft humpback whale breaching about a mile from shore on September 14. Usually, the first sightings take place in early October.

These protected marine mammals return to Hawaiʻi to breed, give birth and nurse young. If you are also here in the islands, you can see these magnificent whales on boat trips or from the shore. Here are a few tips:

Go during high season

Humpback whales make the trip to Hawaiʻi from November through May, but peak season is usually January through March. And during those months, just after the holiday travel rush, there are usually fewer visitors to the islands, so flights and hotels can be cheaper and tours less crowded.

Maui is the best island for whale watching

You can see humpback whales from any of the Hawaiian Islands, but Maui offers the best ways to see them. You can see whales from shore at Māʻalaea, Kāʻanapali, Kīhei and Wailea. You will need binoculars. You can also book a whale-watching excursion – the Pacific Whale Foundation offers PacWhale Eco-Adventures led by certified marine naturalists with proceeds supporting the foundation’s research, education and conservation programs – that bring you closer of the fifth largest whale species in the world. (Regulations prohibit boats from coming within 100 yards of a whale, and you should never swim with or touch whales or any other marine mammals.)

Check the weather before setting off on the boat

As a general rule, it’s better to go earlier if you plan to go on a boat trip. The mornings are calmer, the afternoons windier. It is easier to spot whales and their spouting when the conditions on the water are Mali (quiet, silent). Harsher conditions can also be challenging for those prone to seasickness.

A humpback whale striking its tail.
Photo: Courtesy of Tail Slap: Ed Lyman/NOAA

Yes you can see whales from Oʻahu

If you’re on Oʻahu this winter, don’t worry. You can also see koholā on this island. You can book a whale-watching tour – most of which depart from Waikīkī or Ko ʻOlina and last between two and three hours – or you can spot them from shore. The trail to Makapuʻu Lighthouse is a great place to see these gentle giants, especially on days with light winds. Even the lookout overlooking Lēʻahi (aka Diamond Head) is a popular viewing spot, without having to hike at all!

be ready

Bring binoculars, whether you plan to see from land or sea. And if you are going on a boat trip, bring wind or rain protection – rain jacket or poncho – sunscreen and a hat that won’t smudge. don’t fly away. You may want to consider a waterproof pouch for your phone, especially if you plan to use it for taking photos or videos. Or bring a waterproof camera like a GoPro.

Make it a learning moment

Seeing humpback whales IRL (in real life) is unforgettable, but it’s also a privilege. Hunted to the brink of extinction, the population of humpback whales may have been reduced to 10% of their original numbers before a hunting moratorium was introduced in 1966. The koholā are now listed as a endangered species. The greatest threats are ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and illegal hunting.

The Hawaiian Islands National Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1992 and is one of the most important whale habitats in the world. It is the only place in the United States where humpback whales mate, give birth and nurse their young.

Whales also have cultural significance in Hawaiʻi.

Be respectful, follow the rules and enjoy the experience!

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