When is the Best Time for Whale Watching in Hawaii?

When is the Best Time for Whale Watching in Hawaii?

Hawaii is a great place to visit for many reasons and one of the most popular is to experience the humpback whale migration that happens during the winter months. 

Whale watching in Hawaii is an extremely popular activity, and the best time for whale watching in Hawaii is generally from December to April. During this period, thousands of humpback whales migrate from Alaska to the warm waters of Hawaii to breed, give birth, and nurse their calves. When you go whale watching in Hawaii you can see whales putting on incredible shows of breaching (when the whales leap out of the water), tail slapping, and just simply existing. The calm and clear waters surrounding the islands make it easier to observe and appreciate the whales in their natural habitat. 

Keep reading this blog to learn more about whale watching in Hawaii. Including the best places to see whales, how to see them and more about the whales themselves. 

When is the Best Time to See Whales in Hawaii?

The Hawaiian whale watching season can be divided into different seasons, each offering unique experiences for travelers. Here is a breakdown of the seasons and what you can expect during each one:

Breeding Season (December to January): This is the beginning of the whale watching season in Hawaii. Humpback whales start arriving from Alaska, and the first sightings occur in December. During this time, you can witness male humpback whales competing for female attention. You may see breaching, tail slapping, and hear captivating whale songs.

Calving Season (January to March): By January, the whale population in Hawaii reaches its peak, and you have the best chance of spotting whales during this time. Many females have already arrived, and you can see mother-calf pairs swimming together. Calves are energetic and curious, often breaching and playing in the water. This season provides ample opportunities for close encounters with humpback whales.

Nursing Season (February to April): As the calving season progresses, you’ll observe the nurturing ways of humpback whale mothers as they nurse and care for their calves. The calves grow rapidly during this period, gaining strength and preparing for the long journey back to Alaska. You may witness breaching, tail slaps, and more social interactions among the whales.

Departure Season (April to May): Towards the end of April, humpback whales begin their migration back to Alaska. While sightings may become less frequent, you may still spot some stragglers enjoying the Hawaiian waters before their departure. These late-season whales often eat lots to build up their energy for the long journey back to Alaska.

It is important to note that whales’ migration patterns can vary, and the exact timing of these seasons may vary from year to year. The above breakdown provides a general overview based on typical patterns observed in Hawaii. It is always a good idea to check with local tour operators or whale-watching experts for the most up-to-date information on whale sightings and the best times to plan your visit.

About Humpback Whales

  • The most commonly seen whales in Hawaii are humpback whales. These magnificent creatures migrate to the Hawaiian waters every year from the cooler feeding grounds in Alaska to hang out in warmer water during the winter season.
  • Humpback whales are one of the larger whale species, with adults measuring around 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters) in length. The males are slightly smaller than the females.
  • Humpback whales have a distinct appearance, with a large, round body, long pectoral fins (flippers), and a knobbly head. Their flukes (tail fins) are wide and have distinctive patterns on the underside, which can be used for individual identification.
  • Humpback whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal. They travel approximately 4,800 kilometres!
  • Hawaii’s waters provide a safe and relatively predator-free environment for humpback whales to breed and give birth.
  • Male humpback whales are famous for their intricate and melodic whale songs. These songs, which can last up to 20 minutes, are believed to be a part of their mating call. Each humpback whale pod has its own unique song, which evolves and changes over time.

It is important to note that while humpback whales are the most common species seen in Hawaii, other whale species can occasionally be spotted as well. These may include pilot whales, false killer whales, orcas, and occasionally even blue whales or sperm whales! However, humpback whales are the main attraction during the peak whale-watching season in Hawaii.

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) /Joe West

Why is Hawaii an Amazing Place for Whale Watching? 

Hawaii is considered a perfect place for whale watching for several reasons:

Humpback Whale Migration: Hawaii serves as a crucial winter breeding ground for humpback whales. This annual migration creates a unique opportunity for visitors to witness these magnificent creatures up close.

The Abundance of Whales: The population of humpbacks in Hawaii is estimated to be around 10,000, making it one of the best places in the world to observe these whales. Their presence and high visibility increase the chances of remarkable whale sightings.

Accessibility: Hawaii is a popular tourist destination with a well-developed tourism infrastructure. There are numerous whale-watching tour operators and boat excursions available, providing easy access to prime whale-watching locations. Visitors have the opportunity to embark on guided tours led by knowledgeable experts who can share insights about the whales and ensure a memorable and educational experience.

Natural Beauty: The Hawaiian Islands provide a stunning backdrop for whale watching. With its picturesque coastlines, pristine beaches, and volcanic landscapes, Hawaii offers a scenic and serene environment to witness the beauty of these gentle giants. 

The Marine Mammal Protection Act: It is good to know that when you go to see the whales they are protected. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) is a federal legislation enacted in the United States to protect marine mammals, including whales, from harassment, hunting, and other harmful activities. In Hawaii, the MMPA plays a crucial role in the conservation and welfare of whales. It prohibits the harassment, capture, or killing of whales within U.S. waters, including the Hawaiian Islands. The act also establishes guidelines for responsible whale watching, ensuring that vessels maintain a safe distance and do not disrupt the natural behaviors of the whales. The MMPA has been instrumental in preserving the habitats and populations of whales in Hawaii, contributing to their continued presence and offering visitors the opportunity to witness these majestic creatures while minimizing human impact and ensuring their well-being.

Sanctuary Ocean Count: The Sanctuary Ocean Count in Hawaii is an annual citizen science project organized by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. It involves volunteers observing and recording humpback whale sightings around the islands. The purpose is to gather data on population trends, distribution patterns, and habits of humpback whales. Participants receive training and educational materials, and their observations contribute to ongoing research efforts. 

What is the Best Hawaiian Island For Whale Watching?

The Hawaiian Islands offer numerous opportunities for whale watching, but some of the best spots include Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island. Here are some specific locations on these islands known for their whale sightings:

Maui: The Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai is particularly renowned for whale watching. The towns of Lahaina and Maalaea are popular departure points for whale-watching boat tours. Maui is widely regarded as one of the top destinations for whale watching in Hawaii. Mauis’ Lahaina Harbor is a popular departure point for whale-watching tours, and you’ll have a high likelihood of witnessing these breathtaking whales in their natural habitat or spotting whales from the shoreline. 

Maui Travel Update: Due to the wildfires that started on August 8, 2023, all unnecessary travel to West Maui (including Lahaina, Napili, Kaanapali, and Kapalua) is highly advised against until October 17, 2023. The other Hawaiian Islands, such as Kauai, Oahu, Lanai, and Hawai’i Island, as well as other parts of Maui (such as Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei, Wailea, Makena, and Hana), are still open. We ask all visitors to the islands to exercise extra caution and respect as the community recovers from this tragedy. Find the official travel advisory here.

Oahu: The leeward (west) coast of Oahu, including areas like Waianae and Ko Olina, offers excellent whale-watching opportunities. You can also spot whales from the shores of Makapuu Point and from Diamond Head. Oahus’ North Shore and the Waianae Coast are known for humpback whale sightings, particularly during the peak season. 

Check out this blog post to learn more about traveling to Oahu: Essential Guide to Oahu, Hawaii: All You Need to Know for Your Perfect Vacation

Big Island: The Big Island of Hawaii provides opportunities for both humpback whale sightings during the winter months and year-round encounters with other species like pilot whales and sperm whales. The Kohala Coast, especially the area near the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, is known for whale sightings, as well as the waters off Waikoloa and Hapuna Beach, a prime location for whale watching. Boat tours often depart from Kawaihae Harbor for whale watching.

Maui Nui Basin: The water between Maui, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe is referred to as the Maui Nui Basin and is a designated whale sanctuary. The best place to see whales in the Maui Nui Basin is departing from Lahaina Harbour because these waters are located right in front of Lahaina and Kaanapali, both on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It is an area known for its rich marine biodiversity and is known for its whale watching.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary: These whales and their environment are safeguarded by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Visitors here can view whales from land and at sea, learn all about these gentle giants in the visitors center on Maui and Kauai, enjoy guided hikes, talks, workshops, and educational activities for all ages, or take advantage of volunteer opportunities at the sanctuary. 

Other islands like Kauai have good places for whale watching. Kauais’ South Shore, specifically the waters near Poipu, is another popular area for whale watching.

Learn more about traveling to Kauai in this blog post: Essential Guide to Kauai, Hawaii for Your Perfect Vacation

It is important to note that whale sightings are never guaranteed, as they are wild animals in their natural habitat. However, by visiting during the peak whale-watching season and choosing reputable tour operators with experienced guides, you increase your chances of having a memorable and successful whale-watching experience in Hawaii.

Best Ways to See Whales in Hawaii

There are several ways to see whales in Hawaii, each offering a unique experience. Here are some of the best ways to witness these magnificent creatures:

Whale-Watching Tours: Taking a whale-watching boat tour is one of the most popular and reliable ways to see whales in Hawaii! Numerous tour operators offer guided excursions specifically designed for whale watching. These tours typically depart from various harbors or coastal towns and provide a knowledgeable crew and naturalist guides who can provide insights about the whales and their behaviors. Boat tours offer the advantage of getting closer to the whales and allow you to observe these gentle giants from a safe distance.

Shoreline Viewing: You can also spot whales from certain shoreline locations in Hawaii. Scenic spots with elevated viewpoints, such as coastal cliffs or headlands, can provide excellent vantage points for observing whales in the distance. Makapuu Point on Oahu, Lahaina on Maui, and Pu’u Keka’a (Black Rock) on Kaanapali Beach are some popular shoreline locations known for whale sightings. Grab some binoculars to enhance your viewing experience from the shore!

Kayaking or Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP): For a more adventurous experience, you can go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding in areas known for whale sightings. Some tour operators offer guided kayak or SUP tours that allow you to explore the waters while keeping an eye out for whales. It is important to maintain a safe distance and follow any regulations or guidelines in place to protect the whales and ensure your safety.

Outrigger Canoe: Whale watching from an outrigger canoe is a unique and immersive way to experience these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Outrigger canoes, traditional Hawaiian watercraft with an extended lateral support float called an outrigger, offer a close and intimate connection to the ocean and marine life. It is a great way to go whale watching while also immersing yourself in Hawaiian culture. 

Scenic Flights: Another spectacular way to see whales is through a scenic flight or helicopter tour. Aerial tours provide a unique perspective, allowing you to view whales from above as they swim and breach in the crystal-clear waters below. These tours offer breathtaking panoramic views of the coastline and the opportunity to spot other marine life as well.

Check out the best beaches in Hawaii in our blog post: Which Hawaii Island has the Best Beaches?

Remember, when observing whales, it is crucial to practice responsible whale watching. Keep a safe distance from the whales and never approach them too closely. It’s important to respect their natural habitat and avoid disturbing their behavior. Additionally, choosing reputable tour operators or guides who prioritize the well-being of the whales is essential for a positive and sustainable whale-watching experience in Hawaii.

Can You See Whales in Summer in Hawaii?

In the summer months, humpback whales have generally migrated back to their feeding grounds in Alaska, where they spend the summer months feeding on krill and small fish. While it is possible to see other species of whales and dolphins in Hawaii during the summer, the chances of encountering humpback whales are significantly reduced during this time. If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii specifically for whale watching, it is advisable to visit during the peak season from December to April for the best opportunities to see humpback whales. However, Hawaii’s beautiful coastal scenery, tropical waters, and diverse marine life offer plenty of other recreational activities and attractions to enjoy during the summer months.

Thinking about planning a solo trip to Hawaii? Check out our solo travel guide here: Solo Trip to Hawaii | 2023 Hawaii Travel Guide for Solo Travelers

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