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By Land or Sea: How to Enjoy Peak Humpback Whale-Watching Season in Hawaii

Posted on February 12, 2016

Story by Derek Paiva

A pair of humpback whales spouting near a Hawaii whale-whatching tour boat. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson. 

Hawaii’s biggest winter vacationers are back in the Islands.

There are a handful of observers who’ll tell you they’re a bit late arriving en masse for their annual vacation this year. (More on that later.) But peak season for North Pacific humpback whales in Hawaii’s waters has definitely arrived. And if you’re arriving in the Islands between now and, oh, let’s say the end of March, you’ll have pretty much the equivalent of front row seats at a Bruce Springsteen concert to catch a glimpse of the gargantuan mammals whether you’re the seafaring type or a 24/7 landlubber.

After summer months spent feeding in waters off the coast of southeastern Alaska, between 4,000 and 10,000 North Pacific humpback whales spend much of the fall journeying more than 3,500 miles south to birth and nurse their calves, and mate. As with millions of human travelers making their way to the Islands annually this time of year, humpback whales are at least partially drawn here by our warm waters. An additional draw for the whales is Hawaii’s relatively shallow offshore waters – in particular, the Auau Channel separating the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai whose maximum depth is just 108 feet.

Humpback whale tail-slapping off of West Maui. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.

Humpback whales typically begin arriving in Hawaii’s offshore waters each November, with the season’s first spotting happening around September. Though the whales arrive and depart Hawaiian waters throughout winter, peak viewing months are January through March. That’s when Hawaii commercial whale watch cruises go full schedule, and visitors and residents take to coastline lookouts hoping to catch the humpbacks breaching the ocean surface. The season winds down when the largest numbers of North Pacific humpbacks begin departing Hawaii for Alaska in April. By May, all but a few stragglers remain in Hawaiian waters.

As the year began, there was some concern among whale watchers that the humpbacks’ usual en masse winter arrival in Hawaii seemed delayed. The unease was mostly fueled by visual reports from whale watchers and whale cruise operators indicating fewer whales in Hawaiian waters this January than usual, particularly in the Auau Channel. The most widely floated reasoning for the humpbacks delayed arrival was an unusually lengthy El Nino event keeping fall and winter ocean waters in the Pacific warmer than usual.

All worry dissipated by mid-January, however, when whale watchers began noticing a quick and steady uptick in the whale population matching traditional numbers for the month. February is looking pretty much business as usual for humpback whale numbers in Hawaii.

So now that the gang’s all here, where are the best places in the Islands to see our annual North Pacific guests?

Can you see the humpback whale in this photo, taken in the Auau Channel off West Maui? Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.

Commercial whale watch cruises are a popular way to see humpbacks up close in their natural habitat doing what they come to Hawaii to do. Since the establishment of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary by Congress in 1992, federal law has prohibited boaters, tour operators and the general public from approaching within 100 yards of humpbacks. (If whales approach within 100 yards of watercraft, well, that’s another story. After all, would you want to cite a humpback?) Trust me though, 100 yards is still a very good distance for watching the massive mammals breach (leap out of the water), slap their tails on the ocean surface and spout seawater. You will feel up close.

Whale-watching cruises are offered on Hawaii Island, Oahu and Kauai, but you’ll arguably find the majority of tour operators on Maui. The reason? The Auau and neighboring channels separating Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai offer one of the largest areas of shallow ocean in the Islands, a draw for adult humpbacks calving and nursing their young. Up until about 1.2 million years ago, these channels were land saddles connecting all four islands into a single land mass called Maui Nui. The Hawaiian word nui translates as “great” or “large.”

Whale-watching tours generally operate within the ocean boundaries of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary. Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sanctuary encompasses shoreline to 500-foot depth locations off Kauai’s north shore, the north and south shores of Oahu, the North Kona and Kohala coasts of Hawaii Island, Penguin Bank (a submerged volcano extending southwest from west Molokai), and the shallows of the former Maui Nui.

View from the deck of a whale watching cruise off West Maui. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.

If scanning the ocean for humpback whales from land rather than ocean is more your thing, the best viewing spots on terra firma are coastlines facing channels that are part of the sanctuary. There are many such spots, but I recommend heading to these (click on links for location map):

On Oahu:

On Maui:

On Hawaii Island:

On Kauai:

On Molokai:

On Lanai:

Enjoy the season!

About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at derek.paiva@anthologygroup.com.

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