Each year from December to May, thousands of Humpback Whales (or “kohola” in Hawaiian) migrate to the warm, protected waters of Hawaii to breed and give birth—some traveling as far as 3,500 miles.
Whale watching season usually peaks from January to early April. Adult Humpbacks typically need to come up for air every 10 to 15 minutes and the babies surface about every 3 to 5 minutes, so the chances of seeing them are high (as long as you know where to look).
Hawaii laws prohibit boats from coming within 100 yards of these gentle giants, but the natural curiosity and playfulness of humpback whales often make boat tours the best way to view them. If you aren’t a fan of boats, there are plenty of spots along the coasts of the islands that offer incredible views and chances to spot whales spouting—and even breaching—from land.
Many tour companies offer guaranteed whale sightings and will invite you back on another boat tour free of charge if they don’t spot any whales.
As Hawaii’s busiest island, Oahu has the most choices when it comes to whale watching cruises. Hawaii Nautical has boats that dock at both the Waianae Boat Harbor on the west side of the island and Kewalo Basin on the south side near Waikiki; they even offer an afternoon tour. Also departing from Waikiki, Atlantis Cruises and the Star of Honolulu offer several whale watching cruise tours throughout the day.
To view whales from land on Oahu, it doesn’t get any better than Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail on the island’s east side. Scan the water and look out for misty spurts of water (or “blows”) from the small summit of the paved hike, and use the on-site telescopes to get a closer look. If you aren’t lucky enough to spot any whales, the sight of the lighthouse, built in 1909, on top of a 600-foot sea cliff is a rewarding view as well.
The ‘Au’au Channel runs between Maui and Lana’i, and as one of the most protected channels in the islands, it has become an epicenter for whale watching during the season. Without a doubt, the best land-based lookout to view whales on Maui is McGregor Point Lookout, located between Ma'alea and Lahaina on Route 30.
Pacific Whale Foundation is a non-profit organization that offers a variety of whale watching tours on Maui. Their luxury catamarans cruises are all led by marine naturalists and the tour profits go towards research, education, and conservation projects. During whale season, the Pacific Whale Foundation also sets up viewing points around the island with binoculars and information.
Besides McGregor Point, some of the best beaches on Maui to spot whales include Makena Beach, Kamaole Beach Park and D.T. Fleming Beach Park—though any stretch of shoreline will do during the peak season.
More than half of the whales that migrate to Hawaii each year to give birth to their young can be found in the waters off of South Molokai. The Kalohi Channel that separates Molokai and Lana’i is a great spot for whale watching, as it tends to be much calmer than other Hawaiian channels. Molokai whale watching boat tours depart Kaunakakai Harbor each day during the season.
Whale Watch Molokai places a hydrophone in the water so guests can enjoy the songs of the male whales as they sing to the females. Other notable companies that offer whale watching tours include Molokai Fish & Dive and Molokai Outdoors.
To try your luck spotting whales from land on Molokai, your best bet is from the beaches on the south side from One Ali'i Beach to Kumimi Beach.
The small island of Lanai often goes unnoticed by tourists, even though it offers amazing snorkeling, stunning vistas and the promise of a less-crowded Hawaiian vacation. Between Manele Harbor and Hulopoe Bay, the Pu'u Pehe landmark is a wonderful spot to view whales in season. Also known as “Sweetheart Rock,” a short hike from the beach will bring you to a lookout with unobstructed views of the ocean. The nearby Four Seasons Resort is also a beautiful spot to sit out and search for whales in the distance.
A visit to Lanai is also a popular day trip from Maui, with Expeditions ferries leaving from Lahaina Boat Harbor to Lanai five times a day every day. While the ferry isn’t a whale watching tour technically, the route takes you right through some of the whales’ favorite seasonal territory. If you’re already on Lanai, Lanai Ocean Sports has several whale watching tours available from mid-December to mid-April that leave from the Manele Small Boat Harbor.
A boat ride down the Na Pali Coast on Kauai is memorable in itself, but when paired with a chance to spot some majestic humpback whales—it is absolutely unforgettable. A hike along the Kalalau Trail with give you several opportunities to spot whales as well. Also on the North Shore, the Kilauea Lighthouse is a particularly scenic area.
Capt. Andy’s is one of the most popular boat cruise agencies on the island, and make no mistake that they offer some awesome whale watching opportunities also. All of their regular tours include whale watching during the season, and boats are equipped with hydrophones to listen to whale songs, some of which can be heard from 20 miles away.
Whether you’re staying on the east side in Hilo or the west side in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii Island (also known as Big Island) is another fantastic option for whale watching from December to May. You can head to Hilo Bay or the Kohala Coast to catch a glimpse of whales tail-slapping, spouting or breaching, but the arguably best views can be found at the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Puukohola literally translates to “hill of the whale” in Hawaiian.
Body Glove Hawaii in Kailua-Kona offers whale watching tours six days a week complete with snacks, refreshments, great photo opportunities and a hydrophone connected to the boat’s sound system. Sightings are guaranteed, so if no whales are spotted guests can come sail again for free.