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When are humpback whales visible in Hawaii? Suggestions for a fantastic, environmentally friendly excursion

After only about 20 minutes of sailing from Oahu’s Waianae Boat Harbor, we were already in the presence of humpback whales.

Captain Florence “Flow” Conin, the boat’s captain, turned the boat off because federal law states that no one, from boaters to swimmers, can go within 100 yards of a humpback whale for their safety. We’re going to “enjoy them from afar,” she explained. (Whales frequently approach boats based on their own level of comfort.) One crew member dipped a hydrophone below the water to see if she could pick up on any singing, which would indicate whether they were males or females.

A humpback whale’s dark dorsal fin rose out of the water, its back arched over the surface, just a few feet from the boat, giving the species its name. The whale’s fluke (or tail) lifted into the air as it dove down. Another whale exhaled a massive plume of spray from its blowhole on the other side of our boat.

“That was insane,” Captain Flow said, echoing everyone else’s thoughts. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Wild Side Specialty Tours, a women-owned sustainable tour company that leads intimate marine wildlife excursions along Oahu’s west coast, led this tour. We’re looking for humpback whales this morning.

Whales (or kohal) are significant in a variety of ways in Hawaiian culture. They are known to Hawaiians as aumkua, or deified ancestors who appear in the form of animals and provide spiritual guidance. Whales are also associated with Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the sea and voyaging.

When does whale season begin in Hawaii?

I took the charter in early December, just as the whales were starting to arrive from their 3,000-mile journey from Alaska to Hawaii’s warm waters to mate.

The humpback whales arrive at different times each year, depending on a variety of factors such as the weather in Alaska, but they usually arrive between November and April. By January and March, it’s peak whale season, and you can easily spot one of these gentle giants by land, sea, or air in the islands.

According to Jessica Colla, Director of Education at Maui Ocean Center, approximately 17,000 humpback whales are expected to visit Hawaii this year, a significant increase over the last century due to global and local conservation efforts.

Where are the best places in Hawaii to see whales from the shore?
There are numerous free places to see these majestic creatures from land, particularly on Maui, Kauai, and Oahu. Simply grab some binoculars and sunscreen and head to the beach.

According to Conner Humann, a certified humpback whale naturalist and crew member on the charter, the majority of humpbacks will stay in Maui’s calmer, shallower water, which is ideal for moms and their calves, making it the best island for whale-watching.

According to Colla, the following are some of the best places on Maui to look for humpback whales:

Kamaole 3 Beach Park in South Kihei is a grassy field with a view of the ocean.
Seascape Restaurant at Maui Ocean Center has a front-row seat to humpback whales because it is right on the harbour and even provides diners with binoculars.
Kaanapali Beach on the west side of the island is well-known for recreational activities such as snorkelling and cliff jumping, but spotting humpback whales is also fairly common.
On the Honoapiilani Highway between Maalaea and Lahaina, stop at the Papawai “Pali” Lookout to watch whales from the cliff.

Popular spots on Oahu include the west side of the island, along the Waianae coast at beaches like snorkelling and diving hotspot Electric Beach, and the North Shore, such as Sunset Beach, according to Humann. Take a seat on the sand and gaze out to sea.

The best place to see whales on Oahu is the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail, a mellow, paved trail suitable for hikers of all levels and ages. The hike provides one of the best views on the island, and there are several lookouts along the trail with tower viewers to scan the ocean. People gathered at one of the hike’s lookouts on a clear Sunday afternoon in late December to watch two calves breach out of the water and slap their pecs.

Humann said that teens and adults enjoy swimming in Kauai’s deep water, and that whales can be seen from all sides of the island. Visit the crescent-shaped Poipu Beach on the island’s south shore, which is one of the most popular snorkelling and swimming spots. Kilauea Point Lighthouse is located on the island’s northernmost tip, where you can also see wild birds. Those aged 16 and up must pay a $10 admission fee.

What are the best whale-watching recommendations?
Humpback whales are large whales the size of a yellow school bus. “They are also one of the most’surface active’ large whales, which means they spend a lot of time at the surface rather than below it,” Colla explained. “This means they are more visible from a distance, especially when compared to other large whales.”

When whale watching, you’re mostly scanning the ocean for “anything out of the ordinary,” according to Captain Flow. Keep an eye out for a sheen on the water, which indicates the presence of an animal.

Whales mostly travel alone, but they will occasionally travel in groups, particularly with a mother and her calf. Because of mating habits, you may see a group of whales in Hawaii.

Fortunately, there is no set schedule for whale-watching excursions. “Humpback whales have a similar sleep schedule to humans; they are active during the day and sleep at night,” Colla explained. “As a result, active whales can be seen at any time of day.” However, because the wind is at its weakest in the morning, the ocean is calmer, making it easier on the eyes.

The most common whale behaviour is when they surface to breathe by exhaling a tower of water vapour that can reach up to 15 feet in height, according to Colla. Adult whales appear every 15 to 20 minutes, and calves appear even more frequently. Don’t give up if you blink and miss some whale action. Just be patient and keep an eye out.

Another common whale behaviour we witnessed was a humpback arching its back and lifting its tail out of the water as it dived deeper. For research purposes, scientists frequently use the distinct pattern of the inside of the fluke to identify individual whales. (After 16 years of sailing, Captain Flow recognises some of the whales and dolphins in the vicinity of Oahu.)

How do you choose a good tour company?

“During whale season, one of the most popular ways to see humpback whales is onboard a boat, giving you the most up-close viewing opportunity and learning from the crew onboard,” Colla said.

With hundreds of whale-watching tours available, do your research and select a responsible and sustainable company that respects the animals and emphasises education. For example, the boat should always approach the whale in the same direction it is travelling and never “force a close encounter by cutting off the whale,” as this could result in an accident, she explained.

Some tours will carry a large number of passengers and prioritise entertainment over education.

Wild Side, which is run by marine biologists and trained naturalists, was my tour company of choice. Each charter is limited to six guests and focuses on education.

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