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Maui Is The Best Place To Watch Humpback Whales

Why does Maui keep winning so many “best of” awards? It’s because of the amazing array of outdoor activities. From all the beaches to play on, ocean sports like SUP, surfing and all the wind-powered toys, the amazing road to Hana and all the dive and snorkeling spots and boats, it’s no wonder people keep voting us as one of the best vacation destinations in the world!

I’ve lived on Maui for close to 20 years as a professional travel photographer, writer, and teaching artist. When people ask me what’s the best time of year to visit, I usually say anytime is great but visiting during whale season is a special treat. The whale watching season runs from November thru May. For those who live here in Maui, we look forward to the whale’s arrival just as much as the visitors who’ve traveled thousands of miles to get here. It’s not just a big animal or a cool ocean adventure to get out on a boat and see these whales. It’s just as much a spiritual experience to be in the presence of these amazing mammals and to see them up close!

Humpback Whale Behavior

Breaching, Fluke Wave or Slap

It’s fascinating how these animals live their lives in such a gentle way and communicate with one another so beautifully! From breaching to tail slaps to fluke waves to babies and mothers, it’s always a memorable experience to see and hear them out on the ocean. One of my favorite whale behaviors to witness on a whale watching tour is called a spy hop. A whale will slowly rise straight up, nose first until its eyes are above water. Which enables the animal to look directly at the people on the boat. Their eyes are incredible and look very similar to a blue human eye – only their eyes are almost the size of a basketball! It is also a wonderful experience to see Maui from an offshore perspective. Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains are so beautiful with the green slopes from the winter rains rising out of the ocean!

You Can Help With The Research

Biologists are keeping a close eye on the population increases of the last decade and comparing it to food sources in the feeding grounds of Alaska. Humpbacks need a thick layer of fat to last the winter months in Maui where they do not feed. Scientists are finding that how soon or late the whales begin arriving may depend on how healthy the food supply (plankton) is during the summer months up north. 2019 should be a year of interesting whale research, and you can help with the results

Here are some ways to get involved:

a blue sign in front of a tree

The Hawaiian Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary is located in Kihei and was created by Congress in 1992 as a way to protect these magnificent creatures in Hawaiian waters. As an NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) facility this sanctuary has been called on many times to help with whales entangled in marine debris in Maui waters over the last several years.

a person riding on the back of a boat

The Maui Whale Trust holds various events during whale season like golf tournaments and free public exhibits and talks about the latest whale research and news. Check out the various expeditions and event times here.

80% of Maui’s Humpback whale population use the corridor between Lahaina and the island of Lana’i (Au’au Channel) as a nursery for newborn calves. The Keiki Kohola Project has been studying these calf and mother relationships and behaviors since 1997. You can help by following these guidelines and support their cause of keeping these waters safe for mothers and calves.

Many of Maui’s boats and residents join in on whale population counts throughout the winter months. Every year the Pacific Whale Foundation’s holds Maui’s “Great Whale Count”. The number of Humpback whales has been steadily increasing from when they were first recorded in 1975, and the 2016 totals show a steady 7% to 8% yearly increase with 732 animals counted including 83 calves.

Maui Whale Festival And Events

For the last 20 years The Pacific Whale Foundation has hosted the Maui Whale Day Festival. It has steadily grown over the years to include a parade, live music and several other fun events. Entertainment has included international stars like Mick Fleetwood and Willie Nelson along with many talented local musicians like Willie K, Marty Dread, Anuhea and Henry Kapono, to name a few. If you’re on the island in February, this is an event worth checking out!

History Of Maui’s Whaling Era

When I first moved to Maui in the early 1980’s I heard about Lahaina being an old whaling town. I assumed the history of whaling ships and crews arriving in Maui in the first half of the nineteenth century had something to do with the humpbacks arriving here too. It turns out that this is not the case at all.

The whaling ships came to hunt first along the coast of Chile and then into the sea of Japan. As more ships were built whaling expanded over 40 years into the arctic and the northwestern coastline of North America. Lahaina was the winter port of call for the American whaling fleet between 1819 and 1860. Whale oil is said to have been the main resource for the industrial revolution as it was used for lamps, heating homes and lubricating the newly invented machinery of the day.

Sea captains favored Lahaina as a winter haven to prepare for the long, arduous voyages across the Pacific in search of whales. The protected waters of Lahaina Roadstead were perfect for the offshore anchored whaling ships, and the port was famed by the crews for its grog shops and lusty women. This in turn caused problems with the also newly arrived missionaries during the 1830’s. This resulted in clashes with the whaling captains and crew. One whaling ship even fired into the town of Lahaina after their captain was detained in the Prison Street jail. It resulted in the building of a coral and mortar fort with fixed guns. The remains of this fort can be seen today near the Lahaina Banyan and courthouse.

By the peak year of 1846 it was observed that 429 whaling ships came to call at Lahaina Roadstead. Although whaling ships also anchored and provisioned on Oahu, it is said the sailors much preferred the Irish potatoes grown in Kula to the yams of Oahu. It was a ruff and tumble town of drinking and merriment for sailors enjoying some R&R after the tremendous toil of whaling. Still, to this day it is a town full of bars and restaurants.

Ancient Hawaiians And Humpback Whales

Surprisingly there is very little evidence that ancient Hawaiians had a relationship with these huge mammals. Aside from a few petroglyphs there is hardly any mention of them in Hawaii’s oral history of chants and legends.

Some theorize that they did not show up until just a few centuries ago, or that they were considered so sacred that information about them was only shared within the priests and Ali’i (royalty) circles of the society. Ivory teeth and bones were known to have washed ashore, and there are artifacts like the whale tooth lei called Lei Niho Palaoa which was a very powerful symbol of status.

One thing for sure though is that the whaling captains recruitment of Hawaiians as able seamen exposed the culture to the world. Many European seamen deserted in Hawaii and as a result, the Hawaiians were prized recruits as whalers for their knowledge and skills of ocean travel. Subsequently, the stories of paradise in Hawai’i were spread through the Americas and Europe.

Ways To Experience Maui’s Humpback Whales

Large Boat Tours

Peak whale watching in Maui begins in December and ends in March which happens to coincide (not by accident) with the peak visitor time. That can mean top prices for flights and lodging. Book well in advance to get the best deals. Whale watching tours on larger boats like those offered on the Pride of Maui, operated out of Ma`alaea Harbor, offer a great view from a large upper deck in this prime Humpback whale breeding ground. These tours guarantee plenty of whale sightings on this side of the island between Dec 15th and April 1st.

Viewing from Shore – When and Where

You will see whales from shore all around Maui. Keep in mind though that they will look like tiny black dots or splashes in the far distance. Surprisingly this does not detract from the experience because Maui’s shorelines are amazing even without whales offshore! Here are a few of the best places to see whales from shore…


a group of people on a beach near a body of water

The shores of both north and south Kihei it is possible to see whales from shore. Along the southern end of Kihei, the waters stay calmer throughout the day as it takes the trade winds some time to make their way up from the north. I like having breakfast at either the Mana Kai Restaurant or Sarento’s on the Beach at Keawekapu Beach and watch the whales splash around near shore. South Kihei and Wailea have good beaches to spot mothers and calves playing close into shore.

The Pali Overlook

a sunset over a body of water

The lookout along the Pali (cliffs) headed towards Lahaina from Kihei or Kahului is a well known and used place to spot whales. Traffic is crazy along the Pali though so be careful. Most days it’s a slow drive through this windy and congested area, but stop-and-go can happen at any time because of people stopping to see tiny whale spouts out on the distant ocean. It’s best to get past the Pali and stop along the beaches of Olowalu to watch the action at sea level.

West Maui

a large body of water with a mountain in the background

Whales can be seen offshore of most beaches in West Maui, but I’ve noticed they prefer the deep calm waters of the northern beaches of Honokowai and Kapalua. The overlook at Honolulu Bay gives an expansive view of the ocean on this side of the island and is a great place to spot whales breaching and splashing around.

Other ways to view Maui’s Humpback Whales

Kayak Tour

a group of people riding on the back of a boat in the water

Silent on the water and simple to learn, kayaks are a wonderful way to get up close and personal with the whales. Just keep in mind that a kayak tour is pretty much the only way to stay safe. Every year people kayaking on there own in Maui waters get caught in the wind or currents and need rescuing. You will learn a lot about whale behavior with a guide and avoid the ocean rescue bill that can run thousands of dollars!

Outrigger Canoe Tour

To go out paddling in a Hawaiian outrigger canoe is to immerse yourself in the culture of old Hawaii. Experiencing a Humpback whale while in an outrigger canoe is the experience of a lifetime! There are only a couple tour companies that offer this experience, so book ahead of time as the number of people they take out is limited. It’s one of my favorite things to do out on Maui’s offshore waters so give it a try. You’ll gain a new respect for this ancient art of paddling canoe.

Ocean Raft Tour

If you are not into crowds on the larger boats, you may consider booking a rafting tour for some whale watching. These motorized rafts can launch from much smaller ports like Kihei’s boat ramp, which is a much shorter and direct approach to Molokini. These boats also have all the amenities of the larger boats without the crowd. Plus there is something special about being in a smaller boat with a massive whale just feet away in the water!

Stand Up Paddle Board

Also known as SUP boarding, this popular activity can be an exhilarating way to view the whales on the ocean. An is highly recommended as the rules and regulations of approaching whales as well as ocean conditions can make this a risky endeavor for the beginner paddler.


So there you have it! If you love our beautifully warm pacific ocean there is no better experience than spending some time with these gentle giants who visit Maui every winter.

Aloha Nui Loa

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