Every year, thousands of North Pacific humpback whales leave the icy waters of Alaska for the warm, shallow waters surrounding Hawaii to mate, give birth, and raise their young. Many whales travel over 3,000 miles in the course of twenty-eight days in a migration that many Hawaiians see as a coming home. Kohola, the Hawaiian word for humpback whales, spend months living and playing in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. With such a large congregation of these majestic creatures in one of the most beautiful places on earth, it’s little wonder to anyone that Hawaii has become a prime spot for whale watching.
With the season come some burning questions about what to expect and how best to soak in the views and experience the humpback whale in all its glory. So, here’s your guide to the whale watching season in Hawaii and where you can find the best views on every island.
Table of Contents
- When Is Whale Season in Hawaii?
- What Kinds of Whales Can You See in Hawaii?
- What’s the Best Way to Whale Watch in Hawaii?
- Which Hawaii Island Has the Best Whale Watching?
- 5 Top Spots for Whale Watching in Hawaii
- Enjoy Whale Season in Hawaii; Save Big with Next Vacay
When Is Whale Season in Hawaii?
The arrival of winter on the islands heralds a much-anticipated Hawaiian activity: whale watching. Official whale-watching season begins on December 15th and runs through April 15th. But even so, if you visit earlier in the fall, you can catch a glimpse of humpback whales as early as September, when they start their migrations. However, if you truly want a good glimpse of humpback whales in Hawaii, plan your trip for December or later in the whale-watching season.
What Is the Best Month for Whale Watching in Hawaii?
The season’s peak runs from January to March, but, hands down, January is the best month for whale watching in Hawaii. Annual ocean counts from two organizations, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the Pacific Whale Foundation, found that January repeatedly sees the most whale sightings.
However, with that said, roughly 12,000 whales visit the Hawaiian islands from November to March every year. Consequently, your odds of seeing these magnificent creatures are pretty high, no matter when you visit during whale season in Hawaii!
What Kinds of Whales Can You See in Hawaii?
Humpback whales are the most common type of whale populating Hawaii’s shores during whale season. However, they’re not the only ones to see. Eagle-eyed viewers watching the shoreline may spot several other types of whales, including short-finned pilot whales, dwarf sperm whales, pygmy killer whales, and Cuvier’s beaked whales, to name just a few.
What’s the Best Way to Whale Watch in Hawaii?
Hawaii whale watching is something else, and the privilege of seeing humpback whales in person on the Hawaiian Islands is an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime. But, the question often becomes how best to embark upon your whale-watching adventure. Between joining a boat tour to get an up-close view of these gentle giants or settling in to spy playful action from the coast, here are some of the best ways to experience both on your whale-watching trip to Hawaii.
Humpback Whales from the Shore
Watching from the shore puts a little distance between you and the majestic humpback whales, but that’s not necessarily bad. Whale sightings are numerous from the coast of Hawaii, and you get unique opportunities to experience these creatures that you won’t find aboard a whale-watching cruise.
You can typically spot humpback whales from any Hawaiian Island as long as you’re in the right spot. It’s best to find a good vantage point with lots of open ocean where you can spy them breaching and playing in the water. If you’re up for volunteering while on vacation, you can even help out humpback whale conservation efforts by signing up to count whale sightings.
But another magical way to experience the whales from the shore is by getting in the water. Because sound travels faster in water and farther, you can often hear the haunting sounds of whale songs while swimming or snorkeling out past the surf break. It makes for an enchanting experience and will certainly stand out as a highlight of your whale-watching trip.
Humpback Whale-Watching Tours
Seeing humpback whales from afar, or listening to their haunting song, isn’t to be missed, but if you want to see humpback whales up close, then Hawaii whale-watching tours are for you. These tours offer a unique way to see whales and all kinds of marine life that might accompany them, from small sea turtles to charming dolphins.
The cost and experience of your whale-watching tour will differ depending on the size and type of boat. Pricing ranges from around $50 for a few hours to over $100 for a half-day tour on a larger boat. Bigger boats like pontoons have the added allure of amenities such as a bar on board and even equipment like cameras and hydrophones to see and hear the whales.
On the other hand, smaller boats promise a more adventurous ride. Bumpy waves and whipping winds almost guarantee you’ll get wet, but the tradeoff is being closer to the water and getting a better view of these stunning creatures.
Regardless of size, because humpback whales are endangered, boats can’t come within 100 yards. But the whales can certainly come to you, and it’s likely the only time in your life that you’ll hope to get mugged!
Which Hawaii Island Has the Best Whale Watching?
Maui is the undisputed king of whale-watching in Hawaii. Thanks to the Maui Nui Basin, the island ranks among the top whale-watching spots in the world. It’s estimated that over half of the population of humpback whales in Hawaii enjoy the warm and shallow waters of the protected Maui Nui Basin.
Though there are many channels in the Hawaiian waters, the Au’au channel is the most populated and most protected, nestled between the shores of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoʻolawe. Because many whales spend whale-watching season here, the area is big with boat tours and a prized spot for many to plan their whale-watching adventures.
Is Whale Watching Better in Oahu or Maui?
Hands down, Maui is the better island for whale watching. It’s actually the best, period. While you can view whales off the coast of Oahu and whale-watching tours launch from every island, Maui sees the largest concentration of whales of any Hawaiian Island.
So, if your main goal of visiting Hawaii is whale watching, head to Maui.
However, Oahu is a great option for a wider breadth of activities. The cosmopolitan atmosphere means that on top of whale-watching tours, you can enjoy late nights in the city, cultural trips around the island, and fan favorites like fun north shore surfing and sunny beach days on the best beaches in Hawaii.
5 Top Spots for Whale Watching in Hawaii
Just as the North Pacific humpback whales travel thousands of miles, so too do humans to see these amazing creatures in the shallow waters surrounding the islands. Whether you nab a spot along the shore or head out for a boat tour on the water, every experience with these incredible creatures will be a moment to remember. So, to make these unforgettable memories, here are the best places to see the majestic humpback whales in Hawaii.
1. Auʻau Channel, Maui
The name Au’au means “to take a bath” in Hawaiian, and it’s quite fitting, considering the calm ocean waters in the channel. Thanks to these bath-like waters, it’s little wonder that the Au’au Channel sees many humpback whales mate, give birth, and play here. In fact, it sees the largest concentration of whales among any of the Hawaiian Islands.
Thanks to the large population of humpback whales, many companies in Maui offer whale-watching tours and services out of Lahaina or Kaanapali Beach around the Au’au Channel. These beaches also make great spots if you prefer whale-watching from the shore instead of boat tours. Visiting in January/February, at the height of whale season, all but guarantees a show.
2. Kohala Coast, Big Island
Among the gorgeous fields of lava rock and rolling green plains lie sandy beaches perfect for spotting whales. After the Au’au channel, Hawaii whale watching doesn’t get much better than the Kohala Coast on the Big Island. You may even catch sight of spinner dolphins out on the water. If you book a whale-watching tour from the Kohala coast, you’ll likely get a combination of whale and dolphin-watching experiences.
The Kona and North Kohala Coast offer several fantastic sites and beaches for whale-watching, including the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Kapa’a Beach Park, Lapakahi State Historical Park, and Holoholokai Beach Park.
Pu’ukohola is one of the best places to whale watch, with an elevated and uninterrupted view out over the water. Its name, Pu’ukohola, actually means “hill of the whale,” so seeing the whales from here is practically kismet, as is hearing their enchanting song if you happen to go swimming off any of these north shore beaches.
3. Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, Oahu
As you know, expensive boat tours aren’t the only way to see the humpback whale in action. If you like to pair your whale-watching with stunning views and one of Hawaii’s best hikes, then the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail on Oahu’s southeast coast is calling your name.
The paved, mile-long trail takes hikers on a short journey to reach 500 feet of elevation. At the top, hikers are treated to a stunning view of Oahu’s windward coast, showing off rugged mountains, small islets, and miles of deep-blue sea.
The lighthouse is off-limits but still bears a striking image against the water, which is the real gem here. In January primarily, whales populate the waters here, and you’ll often find them breaching in the early morning. For the perfect glimpse of the gentle giants, bring your binoculars. You can even pair your whale-watching with a beautiful Hawaii sunrise to cement this as a one-of-a-kind island experience.
4. Kilauea Lighthouse, Kauai
Lighthouses and epic views go hand and hand. So, it makes sense that the iconic Kilauea Lighthouse is one of the best spots for viewing whales on Kauai. Sat upon the island’s northernmost point, the area surrounding the lighthouse also serves as a national wildlife refuge. As it houses the largest population of nesting seabirds, it’s also the perfect place to go birdwatching and catch a glimpse of Hawaii’s most iconic airborne creatures in their natural habitat.
Of course, in Hawaii’s warm waters lies another treat far below. From the cliff, the northern coast of Kauai delights with sweeping views out over the sea. Visitors can bask in the perfect vantage point to spy humpbacks alongside spinner dolphins, monk seals, and sea turtles. It’s the best location to spot all kinds of wildlife and marine life. You could easily spend most of your day here soaking in the views and splendor of the Garden Isle.
5. Kalohi Channel, Molokai
The Au’au Channel isn’t the only one teeming with the sea’s gentle giants. The Kalohi Channel sits directly off Molokai’s southern coast, stretching between the islands of Molokai and Lanai. Over nine miles wide, the channel is another hotbed for whale watching in Hawaii and a great place to view their playful antics from up close.
The Hawaiian word Kalohi actually means “the slowness.” Admittedly, it’s not a wholly accurate description of the channel, which is frequently windy and rough. However, it is a great reminder to relax and take things slow as you search the water’s surface for a breach while taking in the views—and occasionally the sounds.
With underwater hydrophones, the sounds of the ocean come to life even from miles away, and you can listen to the beautiful melodies of male humpbacks serenading potential partners on your whale-watching tour around the channel.
Enjoy Whale Season in Hawaii; Save Big with Next Vacay
Winter is one of Hawaii’s biggest and most anticipated seasons, thanks to the great humpback whale, so it’s no surprise that things can get a little expensive. After all, everyone wants to spend winter in the tropics. But traveling in winter and seeing the Kohola up close doesn’t have to wipe out your savings.
Getting a deal through Next Vacay guarantees you’ll save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on your next flight. So, when you want to plan excursion after excursion to watch the whales play and frolic, you can rest easy knowing that the money you spend is money you saved on your flight to Hawaii. Don’t be afraid to experience everything. Fly with Next Vacay.