Updated: May 21, 2015
Best Maui Whale WatchingAs land dwellers, we rarely get to see or interact with the largest creatures on the planet, the whales. These huge mammals spend most of their lives underwater, invisible to us. But there are certain times of year, in certain places, where whales suddenly become very visible, coming close to shore, easily accessible via boat and often times clearly visible from the shore as well. Maui is one of the best spots for whale watching, certainly the best spot in Hawaii. When can you go whale watching in Maui? Humpback whales (the kind most often found around Maui) are migratory animals, and they spend their summers in and around Alaska in the north Pacific, fattening up during the long northern days there (they can eat up to 2000 lbs of fish per day!). When the seasons change, the whales head further south to spend the winter months in the warmer waters of the Pacific nearer to the equator. More than 3000 humpbacks normally pass through the Hawaiian Island chain each winter.
The whales come to mate and give birth in the relatively shallow and very warm waters off the west coast of Maui, sheltered from the deep Pacific by the nearby islands of Lanai and Molokai. With a gestation period of 10-12 months, calves conceived one season are birthed the next season, with both events happening righ here off Maui!! The best time to see whales in Maui is Dec. through April, sometimes extending into May. Amazingly, the whales live off the blubber while they visit Maui, stored from the long summer months of feeding. On a recent trip to Maui we took in March of 2007, we were astounded by the sheer number of whales we saw. Even from the shore and from our hotel balconies, day after day we saw dozens of whales. The most common sighting is the spouting from the blow hole, where a cloud of water vapor sprays into the air like a mini geyser when the animals surface. You can spot these over and over again on the horizon. The next most common sighting was the roll of the whales big arching back as he rolls along the surface of the ocean before descending again. If you are lucky, you'll see the tail lift out of the water right at the end of this movement as well. The real amazing moments, though, is when the whales breach and leap into the air, twirling and landing with a massive splash. We saw only a few of these, but they are sight to behold. Another spectacle was one whale, just off the shore of the main drag in Lahaina, lifting his tail and pounding it against the ocean surface over and over, smacking the water and creating huge splashes. So while the view from land is terrific, it becomes even more dramatic when you go out in a boat and get even closer to these whales. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and polarized glasses (or any sunglasses) if you have them. Binoculars help as well, as mentioned before.
Maui Whale Watching Boats TripsYou really appreciate the size of these whales when you get right out on the water next to them. Most whale watching tours last about 2 hours and cost $20-$35 per adult, less for children, with many offering kids under 6 free tickets. Whale watching cruises are best on quick, steady boats, allowing you to spot whale pods and quickly get close to them, then stop and watch them go by. Whales are protected by federal laws, so boats cannot approach closer than 100 yards to them, but if they do it right, the whales themselves will then swim closer to the boat, allowing for real closeup views. In general, though, expect to be at least 100 yards from most whales you see. For this reason, its nice to bring along a pair of binoculars if you have them -- they come in handy when viewing from the land as well. The best whale watching cruise on Maui is probably that of the Pacific Whale Foundation (PacificWhale.org). This group was founded almost 30 years ago with the goal of studying and protecting whales. They offer tours out of both Ma-alaea and Lahaina. We like Lahaina better as it tends to be less windy with calmer waters. The nice part about these tours is that you are going out with real whale experts and scientists, who will fill you up with lots of greats details and information about the great whales. Since the whales are so close to shore, it is usually only a few minutes boat ride to see them - less than 10 minutes. If you even THINK you might be prone to seasickess, take a Dramamine or something before heading out -- nothing ruins a day of whale-watching like seasickness. Morning trips tend to be calmer and smoother, but at the same time the sun is behind you and lighting up the ocean from behind you and making it look dark, making it tougher to see dark whales. By the later afternoon, if the sun ducks behind some clouds, it is much easier to see the dark shape of the whales against the bright mirror surface of the ocean. PWF offers more than a dozen cruises each day, so there are plenty of options. They even offer a guarantee if you don't see any whales, you can come back on a later trip for free. They also use hyrdophones to pickup the songs of the male whales, playing them back through the PA system on the boat - this is a very haunting and beautiful sound, not to be missed.
You can also check out MauiPrincess.com for alternative whale watching trips, part of the Lahaina Cruise Company. They depart from Lahaina, with trips leaving at 7:30AM, 9:45, 12noon, and 2:45, with prices ranging from $26.70 to $33.60 for adults, and $17-$20 for kids. Their boats are big and stable, their staff professional. They even feature the underwater WhaleCam where you can see what is going on around you underwater on monitors around the boat -- very nice!