Whale Watching in Hawaii
You might think of whale watching in Hawaii as a rather peaceful activity. To see a whale surge out of the sea and fall back down in a massive splash is a beautiful sight. Some things are beautiful from a distance. To see a whale up close is rather scary. Let me tell you a real whale’s tale.
A Maui Whale Watching Tale
We were on a whale-watching boat off Lahaina, Maui one morning, all the camera toting tourists were searching the water for whales. This was before smart phones, we had those bulky things called cameras.
Suddenly we saw a white spout off the starboard side, that’s pirate talk for the right side, and there it was, a Humpback whale larger than the boat, and it was swimming straight toward us. The boat was 40 feet long, the whale was 50 feet at least. And it was heading our way, real fast.
The big black bulk of a whale was a hundred yards away and churning through the water heading for the side of the boat. Everyone was freaking out, it looked like it was going to ram us! On it came, a black shiny mountain, rising and falling at top speed. Spumes of white water shooting from the spout on its head. It felt like the movie, Moby Dick.
We saw it go under water and I held my breath thinking it would rise up under us and capsize the boat full of tourists. Girls were screaming, men trying to be cool and calm, a few screamed too. Moments passed, hearts pounding.
It swam under the boat and surfaced off to our left, I think I saw the whale laughing as it swam off in the direction of Lanai. I thought maybe the whale watching company had trained the whale to do that for more excitement, but nah, it was just a whale having a little fun with tourists.
It was one of hundreds of Humpbacks you can see off Maui and the Big Island from October to May, best months being January, February and March. They are an easy-going part of the Hawaiian scenery, beautiful to see, tame as a 40 ton kitten, you get the idea. Just look for white puffs of spray off-shore and there’s your whales.
While Humpbacks can be spotted anywhere in Hawaii, they are best viewed in the shallow waters between West Maui, Lanai and Molokai as well as near the Big Island. If you are lucky to vacation in Maui in winter, it’s convenient to find a tour close to where you stay. If staying in West Maui, book a Lahaina whale watching tour. If you stay on the sunny South shore, check out the Kihei whale watching tour.
Why Do Whales Breach?
When they leap out of the water it’s always for a reason, there are names for how they jump.
When you see the big black head of a whale rise up straight, it’s to look around and check things out, this is a Spy Hop. When he slaps his 16 foot-wide tail on the water, it’s a warning to stay away, this is, obviously, a Tail Slap. A side fluke (fin) slapping the water, it’s to send a message. This is a Pec (pectoral fin) Slap. And when they leap up and splash down, its called a Breach. It’s a regular party out there with those whales.
In this study of behaviors of Humpback whales the scientists observed that the whales breach much more often when they are over 2.5 miles away from other whale pods. The whales might use breaching for long-distance communication, as the sound resulting from the impact with the water travels fast and far.
But seeing the breaching whale, we can easily imagine it’s just for fun. They need some fun after what they go through in life. The lifestyle of a whale makes you tired just thinking about it. To better recognize whale surface behavior, check out these whale behavior facts.
The Lifestyle of a Humpback Whale
It begins in the waters off Maui and Hawaii Island in late spring, that’s where they breed. It’s the last fun they’ll have for their half a year in Hawaiian waters. After breeding it’s the big swim to Alaska, 3,000 miles north. Through the summer in the cold, northern waters, all they do is eat. Not one is on a diet, you can tell because each whale eats 3,000 pounds of fish a day!
They open their mouth like a big tunnel and gulp down tons of fish. They feed on small shrimp called Krill and also eat squid, mackerel, herring and salmon. After all that breeding in Hawaii, the females are pregnant and now are “eating for two”, 3,000 pounds worth.
Did I say whales are smart? Like cowboys in the water they herd fish and Krill together into a bunch to have their lunch. The whales find a school of fish and circle around them blowing bubbles, herding the fish in these bubble nets until they are in a ball, then the whales take turns gulping them down. Some seafood buffet.
They feast in the freezing cold 40 degree water from April to November until it’s time to head back to Hawaii in winter to romp and play and give birth to their young.
People on Maui and Hawaii Island start to see those white puffs on the ocean in October or November, that’s the whales spouting as they return. After they spout awhile the females settle down and give birth to a one-ton baby whale. The whale calf is not on a diet, it gains 100 pounds a day.
But the mother whale puts all diets to shame. For six winter months from December to March, she does not eat one single fish or shrimp, nothing. She lives off her blubber (we’ve all heard that term) until she gets back to Alaska in April. Now that’s a fast!
All winter the mom and her calf swim around, the mother teaching the young one how to get around the ocean. She shows the calf how to find fish to eat and stay away from sharks. Meanwhile, the big male whales hang out till the breeding begins. They are also fasting.
For Humpback Whales, it’s winter in Hawaii, and summer in Alaska their whole life long. Not a bad life-style, they live to be 50 years old and visit Maui and the other islands every year.
To learn about other whales that can be seen around Maui, read Five Types of Whales Found Near Maui.
Ready for Maui Whale Watching?
Now that you know what whales are up to you might be looking forward to some whale watching in Hawaii. There are many ways to see a whale. From the shore is the easiest. Get some binoculars and scan the horizon, you will see whale spouts and maybe a giant whale breaching up high. Maybe see a Spy Hop.
For the brave there are outrigger canoes. Guides will row with you out into whale areas and you’ll see the whales up close from an old whalers point of view. We won’t mention whalers again, thank you.
For the rest of us there are whale-watching boats, that are hopefully longer than the whales. There are many whale-watching tours on Maui and some on Hawaii Island. You might check out Maui whale watching tours here, they will get you out among the Humpbacks. In Hilo on Hawaii Island there is Lava Ocean Tours.
At present there are 10,000 Humpback Whales in Hawaiian waters. You’ll see one or two for sure. Their population is growing by leaps and bounds (no pun). In 1993 there were only 6,000 and because of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection act there are at least 21,000 Humpbacks swimming around Hawaii and Alaska.
There are 21,000 Humpback whales out there and every one of them can sing a song. It’s a whale song and sounds like a giant Tuba or Bass Horn. It can be heard underwater for 12 miles. Some scientists say they can be heard two-thousand miles away. I believe 12 miles, that’s good enough for me.
Be sure to see a whale or two when you visit, they are really something to see!
Dennis Gregory is a long-time writer, he lives in Kona, Hawaii. In 1970 he founded the first literary magazine at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. Since then he has published novels, poetry books and writes a column for the local paper in Kona. He is also an artist and musician.
10 thoughts on “Whale Watching in Hawaii”
What a fantastic article, it was so informative and I learned a lot about the female whales. Next time I’m in Hawaii I will look for those whales and will see if they get close to the starboard side of the boat. I remember seeing them in Maui in the spring, it was very entertaining. Thank you Denny for such a fun read! Aloha
Fantastic article, I enjoyed learning about the female whales and their yearly migration. I saw whales spouting off the island of Maui , it was so entertaining to watch. Keep writing about The Hawaiian life Denny!