If you’re headed to Maui in winter, you’re in luck- this tropical paradise just so happens to also be one of the best places to see humpback whales on the planet!
But with so many whale watching tours to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming to pick which one is worth your time- and money, especially if you want to be sure you’re supporting a sustainable business that’s furthering the conservation of these incredible creatures . But fear not- after tons of research, trial, and error, we’re spilling the beans on the very best whale watching tours in Maui for ecoconscious travelers.
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August 2023 Update: Certain areas of Maui, including Lahaina, are currently devastated by wildfires. Please be sure to double check whether places are open and accessible and be even more kind, respectful, and patient with the land and the locals than you generally would be.
Before we dive in (whale pun!), let’s cover some basic information you should know about Maui whale watching.
When can you see whales in Maui?
Some whales live in Hawaii’s waters all year round, but most visitors are interested in seeing the mighty humpback, a 60,000 pound creature the size of a school bus. For these majestic animals, the Maui whale watching season runs from November through May, with peak season being mid-January through March.
During this time, some 10,000–12,000 humpbacks migrate from the chilly waters of the Arctic to Maui’s shallow and warm lagoons to breed, calve, and raise their babies. There’s usually so many humpbacks around Maui during this season that many tour operators literally guarantee a whale sighting- or you can rebook your tour for free (but more on that below)!
Outside of this window, you’ll likely be able to find companies that are still operating tours, but your chances of actually seeing whales are fairly low and whale sightings are not typically guaranteed. Still, it could get a lot worse than spending a couple hours cruising around Maui’s waters, keeping your eyes peeled for whales and basking in the warm glow of the Hawaiian sun.
Is Maui the best Hawaiian Island for whale watching?
While you can theoretically spot whales on all the islands, Maui is, by far, the best place to see humpback whales during winter in Hawaii. This is because the whales love the shallow and warm Auau Channel, located between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai.
Besides its cozy waters being prime real estate to raise calves, scientists also believe that humpbacks flock to the Auau Channel, due to the limited number of naturally occuring predators here, the crystal clear waters (which help the poorly sighted whales spot possible predators better), and the human-imposed protections on the area, which is also known as the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
What kind of whale watching tours are there?
The majority of whale watching tours on Maui are hosted on catamarans, which are usually larger boats that can hold 100 or more people. These are usually the most affordable kind of tour, but you’ll also be with the largest group of people. Nevertheless, the larger group usually isn’t an issue during whale watching season- between the number of whales in the Auau Channel and the fact you can freely move around the boat, you shouldn’t have any problem seeing through the crowd.
There are, however, other types of whale watching tours…
For a more intimate experience, you can take a whale watching tour on a sailboat, which usually has 60 people or less on it. Given their higher pricepoint, they also usually include a few fun perks, like an open bar.
Zodiac rafts are even smaller than sailboats, only holding about 20 people or so. Accordingly, they’re usually one of the priciest options and can also be challenging for people who are prone to getting seasick.
Kayaking or canoeing:
Instead of a motorized boat, you’ll propel yourself through the water! Your mobility will obviously be quite a bit more limited than if you were zooming around with some horsepower behind you, but your knowledgeable guides will take you to where you’ll have the best shot of seeing the whales.
Plus, can you think of a more rad workout?!
What side of Maui is best for whale watching?
As mentioned above, the humpbacks, and thus, whale watching tours, tend to stick around the Auau Channel on Maui’s western side. Accordingly, the vast majority of the tours leave from Lahaina along the island’s northwestern coast, or, to a lesser degree, Kihei or other smaller towns towards the southwest of the island.
Best Whale Watching Tour on Maui
Okay, so with all that said, what are the best whale watching tours in Maui for ecoconscious travelers?
In my opinion, you simply can’t beat the Pacific Whale Foundation’s whale watching tour.
First and foremost, one of the coolest and most unique things about the Pacific Whale Foundation is that it’s a 501(c)(3) corporation. This means that all of the profits from its tours go directly to support its research, education, and conservation programs. To my knowledge, it’s the only company on Maui that can say this.
Second of all, you’ll have an experienced and certified marine naturalist onboard every tour (when I went, we had two naturalists onboard, who both had master’s degrees in marine biology), who can tell you seemingly every fact about humpback whales. Like did you know that humpback whales can eat up to 3,000 pounds of krill in a day?! Or that their songs can be heard up to 20 miles away?
Fascinating whale facts aside, all of the staff clearly are SO enthusiastic about their jobs, from cracking jokes with the guests to sailing a bit out of the way to clean up random trash they find floating out on the ocean.
Finally, their experienced staff makes sure you have the best time observing the whales- in fact, if you don’t see whales on your trip, you’ll get to go again for free!
Plus, the staff makes sure everyone on board has an awesome experience, from thoughtfully turning the boat during whale sightings, so, no matter where you’re sitting, you’ll get a good view— to dropping a hydrophone into the water so the entire boat can listen to the whales’ beautiful songs. During my husband’s and my tour with Pacific Whale Foundation, we saw well over a dozen humpbacks- and in fact, at one point, we had multiple whales, scattered across the horizon, competing for our attention.
The Pacific Whale Foundations offers two-hour catamaran whale-watching tours, either out of the Lahaina Harbor or, if you’re staying outside of Lahaina, out of the slightly more centrally located Ma’alaea harbor. Go on this tour and see ALL the breaching whales- you won’t be disappointed.
Check the prices below:
While not quite as awesome as the Pacific Whale Foundation, the Hawaii Ocean Project donates 100% of all of its onboard gift shop sales and voluntary onboard donations from its guests go directly to fund marine life research. In fact, the company has donated over $90,000 to whale and other marine mammal research to date.
Plus, the Hawaii Ocean Project Two-Hour Catamaran Tour that launches out of Lahaina has a few really cool perks, like an underwater camera to see the whales in action and a free tour if you don’t spot any whales.
Check the prices below:
If you’re looking for a smaller group experience, this two-hour tour only offers spots to 12 guests per tour and uses a Coast Guard-style raft to zip around and find the best places for whale watching. And if you don’t happen to see any of these gentle giants during your tour, you’ll get to go again for freeee!
Additionally, there’s all kinds of neat sustainable practices that this locally owned and operated company follows, including using the lowest emissions rated engines on their rafts to donating a portion of every ticket sold to humpback whale research. In fact, Ultimate Whale Watch does everything from donating their vessels and captains’ time to transport ocean-based researchers to volunteering with the Rescue Disentanglement Network, which helps free humpbacks that get caught in fishing nets during their migration to Maui’s waters.
Check the prices below:
Other Frequently Asked Questions About Maui Whale Watching Tours
Is there a specific time of day I should book a Maui whale watching tour?
In terms of whether whales are more active during a particular part of the day, scientists have concluded that whales are just as active during the morning as they are in the afternoon.
However, I’d still recommend opting for an earlier tour if you can, for a couple of reasons:
- Due to Maui’s trade winds, the ocean is usually calmer in the morning, so you’ll have a better chance of spotting less active whales or other creatures that stay below the surface.
- Early tours are usually less crowded, meaning you’ll more easily be able to navigate around the other guests on the boat to score the best views of the whales.
- The golden glow of the morning light makes for some fantastic photos! Seeing a Hawaiian sunrise while out in the ocean is such a magical experience.
Are there other tips for booking a whale watching tour?
Yes- if you’re visiting Maui for several days, be sure you book your tour with a company that allows free rebooking. More importantly, book your tour during the beginning of your Maui itinerary in the event you don’t see any whales. That way, you can easily rebook your tour and double your chances of spotting these beautiful animals!
What should I bring on a whale watching tour?
- Seasickness medication
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Light waterproof jacket (his and hers), because whale watching season in Maui just so happens to coincide with the rainy season! It can also get pretty chilly on the water, especially in the mornings. Plus, given how many microclimates you’ll find on the islands, a waterproof jacket is a must to include on any Hawaii packing list!
- Camera with a zoom lens if you want to up your cell phone photo game. We use this mirrorless camera (check out our review of the Sony A7III) and this reasonably-priced zoom lens.
- Drybag, especially if you’re going in a raft or a kayak
- Cash, to tip the staff or donate to any onboard programs
Is there a specific place I should stay in Maui for whale watching?
As mentioned above, most of the whale tours in Maui depart from the western side of the island, due to its proximity to the Auau Channel. Accordingly, consider staying in the historic town of Lahaina, like at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spaor Hotel Lahaina– we stayed here and loved it!
Alternatively, Kihei offers quite a number of whale watching tours and is a popular homebase for travelers, like at the Maui Coast Hotel or, if you’re feeling particularly bougie, the Fairmont Kea Lani.
Now go forth and see some whales! Do you have any questions about the best whale watching tours in Maui? Let me know in the comments below!