Humpback whales are graceful, peaceful, intelligent creatures, and much of what we know about them remains a mystery. What we do know, however, is they show up like clockwork every winter in Hawaii to breed and nurse their young before the long trek north to Alaska to feed in the summer.
If you’re in Maui when the whales are, they are a must see. Here are some tip and facts to get you prepped and excited for some whale watching!
Official whale seasons run from December 15 – April 15
The first whales actually start arriving in late September and the late check-out leave in mid May. The absolute best times to spot whales is December thru March, which is when all the whales have made their 6-8 week journey to escape the cold waters of Alaska.
Maui is literally the best place in Hawaii for spotting humpback whales
Why? Because they love warm shallow water (less than 600 feet), and the Auau Channel between West Maui (Lahaina and Kaanapali), Lanai and Molokai is nothing but warm shallow water.
Whales are sacred to Native Hawaiians
Ancient Hawaiians were not hunters of whales, but occasionally harvested ivory from whales that washed ashore. The ivory was considered extremely sacred and was worn as power object by ali’i (Hawaiian royalty).
Whales are also a part of the Kumulipo chant — the revered Hawaiian chant of creation — which says Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai, “born is the whale living in the ocean.”
Kohola is the Hawaiian word for whale, and kuapio kohola is the literal translation for humpback whale.
Whales in Hawaii don’t eat
That’s right — they go up to four months without a meal! The warm waters of Hawaii don’t support the kind of food that humpback whales eat (krill, a tiny shrimp).
Instead, the whales survive off the blubber they store from their summer feeding months. They actually end up losing up to 1/3 their body weight by the time winter is over.
The big exception are nursing whale calves, which eat about 100 gallons of milk a day from their mother. The milk contains about 40% milkfat!
You can hear whalesong underwater
Seeing a whale breach out of water is magnificent, but nothing can quite prepare you for hearing a whale sing underwater.
The first time I heard whalesong, I was swimming in the cool December waters at Kiholo Bay on the Big Island. Kiholo is a black lava sand beach, which made the water also dark and somewhat eerie. As soon as I jumped in, I could hear it echoing all underneath. The sound is deep and haunting and beautiful.
On Maui, you can hear underwater whale song in West Maui, Lahaina, Kaanapali, and the beaches around Kapalua.
The best road on Maui to watch whales from is…
…the stretch of Highway 30 between Ma’alaea and Lahaina. You can also witness them near the coast in South Maui (Kihei and Wailea), as well as Paia Bay and Ho’okipa on the North Shore.
Yes, whale watching tours are worth it
If you want to get much, much closer than spotting a whale from land, book yourself a whale watch tour (or, if you’re really daring, a whale watching canoe/kayak/SUP tour).
Just like hearing whalesong for the first time, seeing a whale in its natural element from the vantage point of its natural element will take your breath away. It’s actually quite an adrenaline rush, as these whales are incredibly massive: 80,000 lbs, which is the equivalent of over six elephants.
Please keep in mind that humpback whales are protected and it’s illegal to approach them within 100 yards.
You may also get lucky…
…and spot some other marine creatures, such spinner dolphins, pilot whales, false killer whales, melon-headed whales, Short Finned Pilot Whales, sperm whales, dwarf sperm whales, orca (ultra rare), pygmy killer whale, Blainville and Cuvier’s Beaked Whales.
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