The first sightings of humpback whales in Hawaii occurred early this year in October. They have already been seen off of Maui and the Big Island. The whales never fail to captivate locals and Hawaii visitors, bringing everyone together as these giants draw the gaze and awe of all who witness this incredible spectacle.
The annual data collection commences in November, a tradition dating back to the 1980s. This monitors the yearly migration of these magnificent creatures, which begins in the ocean at Alaska, and tracks how they are affected by shifting prey patterns and climate change, among other factors.
Beat of Hawaii editors will head out to watch humpback whales from both land and sea again this year and will soon report back. Lead photo is of Beat of Hawaii whale watching off Maui.
During the annual migration from Alaska to Hawaii, which takes place each fall, up to 12,000 humpback whales cover an astounding 3,000-mile journey each way. From now through spring, especially during peak season from December to March, observing these colossal humpbacks on your Hawaii vacation is relatively easy. These incredible creatures can weigh up to 90,000 pounds and measure up to 40 feet in length.
NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Created a quarter century ago by Congress, NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has been critical to protecting humpback whales (koholā), the only place in the US where the whales reproduce. NOAA scientists estimate that up to 12,000 whales, which is over one-half of the North Pacific humpback population, return to Hawaii from November through May. Here, they breed, calve, and nurse their offspring. While it isn’t precisely known how long the humpback whales have used the Hawaiian waters for mating and reproduction, it was noted as long ago as 1840.
Whale watching from on land in Hawaii.
For those who prefer to watch whales from the safety of solid ground, free from the risk of seasickness – a common concern in Hawaii’s occasionally turbulent waters – you can position yourself along a popular shoreline and prepare for the adventure. If you’re fortunate enough to capture a photo of these fast-moving behemoths, consider yourself lucky; their speed can pose quite a challenge for photographers. However, with many humpbacks in the state during Hawaii’s whale season, ample opportunities will arise for trying to capture that perfect shot. Given that viewing may be from a significant distance, an actual camera and telephoto lens may prove helpful.
Also highly popular are whale-watching tours.
Those cruises in various forms can be found on all the main Hawaiian Islands and are most popular on Maui and the Big Island. Naturalists onboard provide education on the creatures. You may also be delighted to see spinner dolphins. And it isn’t unknown for a snorkeling tour to spot humpback whales.
Humpback Whale Watching by Island:
Big Island: Our most memorable humpback whale sightings on the Big Island have occurred along the Kohala coast, but friends have also reported sightings in Hilo, Kawaihae, and Kona. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, which sits at an elevation, provides a superb vantage point to see humpbacks. Hilo Bay is another popular location for Hawaii whale watching.
Kauai: Kauai offers whale viewing opportunities around the entire island. Seek out whales at places like Poipu Beach Park and all south shore Kauai beaches, on the east side north of Kapaa and from Kilauea to the Napali Coast on the north shore.
Maui: Maui is renowned for offering some of the best whale-watching experiences in Hawaii. It was once the center of whaling activity in the 1800s, a period that nearly brought the species to extinction. Today, the island is celebrated for its exceptional Maui whale-watching opportunities and is considered by many to be the best island for viewing. Prime locations are scattered along the west and south shores, and we’ve had success spotting them at Pohaku Beach Park and Kaanapali. Be sure to visit NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei, where knowledgeable docents can provide valuable insights and assistance for your whale-watching adventure.
Oahu: You won’t need to venture far from Honolulu to witness the beauty of these whales. We’ve enjoyed whale watching on Oʻahu near Diamond Head, from Sandy Beach to Makapuʻu lighthouse, at Hanauma Bay, and generally along the south and west-facing shores. And even off Waikiki.
Molokai, Lanai: Whales can also be seen in the waters of both islands.
Recent Decline in Sightings: It’s important to note that experts have observed a decline in humpback whale sightings, with numbers dropping by at least 50% over the past five years. This decline doesn’t necessarily indicate decreasing migration or other critical issues but raises concerns among scientists. With many variables at play, it remains unclear whether the whales choose less populated and monitored areas in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, if they have reached a natural plateau in our region, or if other factors contribute to this trend. What is evident is that we are not witnessing as many of these magnificent creatures in the usual locations.
In addition to humpback whales, Hawaii is home to false killer whales, providing even more opportunities for incredible marine life encounters.
You can explore resources from NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources and the American Cetacean Society for further information on humpback whales. Please share your most remarkable Hawaii whale-watching experiences with us.
Where was your best whale sighting in Hawaii?