Maui Whale Watching Guide: Everything You Need to Know About the Pacific’s Best Acrobats

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What could possibly be more majestic than seeing a creature the size of a school bus jump out of the ocean and slap its 60,000 pound body against the surface, before disappearing below- all with the gorgeous Hawaiian islands as the backdrop? During certain parts of the year, Maui is one of the best places on earth to spot humpback whales. So if you want a front row seat to one of Mother Nature’s most dazzling shows during your time on the island, here’s 10 things you should know about Maui whale watching to make your experience as epic as possible!

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Pssst… are you headed to Maui? Color me jealous- I LOVE Hawai’i! Consider checking out our other posts about about Maui:


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.

1. Winter is the best season for whale watching on Maui.

While you can catch certain whales in Maui’s waters year-round, the best time to see humpbacks is November through May (with peak season mid-January through March), when 10,000-12,000 whales migrate from the chilly Arctic waters of Alaska to the warm lagoons of Hawai’i to breed, calve, and raise their young.

My husband, Justin, and I visited in mid-January and I can’t believe how many amazing whales we saw. At one point, there were two whales from separate pods around our boat, each jumping out of the water and competing for our attention at the same time (did it make me cry from being so overwhelmed by how majestic these creatures are? Yes, yes, it did).

In fact, all of the pictures you see in this article were captured on that one trip alone! If you happen to be visiting Maui at this time, you’re basically required to go see some whales- it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip!

Humpback whale calf during Maui whale watching tour
Perhaps the most adorable sight I’ve ever seen- a humpback whale calf. Squee-ness aside, did you know that, when humpback whale calves are born, they weigh around a ton and are 10-15 feet in length?

If you visit outside of this window, you will likely be able to find a company that still operates whale watching tours, but your chance of seeing whales is pretty low- and the tour company won’t guarantee the sightings (unlike how they usually do during the migration season).

Fun fact: While the humpbacks obviously love Hawai’i’s waters, the adults actually don’t eat anything during their stay and exist solely off of their blubber they’ve built up in Alaska- their usual diet of krill and copepods is not found here. The babies, on the other hand, eat quite a bit- drinking up to 158 gallons of their mother’s milk per day!

2. Humpbacks are culturally significant to Native Hawaiians.

Humpbacks, or kohola in Hawaiian, are more than just a gentle giant- they’re also an important part of Hawaiian history and culture, playing a role in a story of creation and can be found in ancient petroglyphs on several of the islands. Plus, given that many of the world’s humpbacks are born in these very waters, many Hawaiians treat their annual migration here as a homecoming of sorts.

Some Native Hawaiians also believe that aumakua (deified ancestors who take the form of animals) may take the form of humpbacks, so these enormous creatures are treated here with the utmost reverence. 

Humpback whale calf from Maui whale watching tour

3. Maui is the best Hawaiian island for whale watching.

While you can see whales off all the Hawaiian islands, Maui is the best one for it, given that the shallow Auau Channel, between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, provides one of the highest concentrations of humpback whales on the planet during the winter months.

Beyond just having warm cozy waters (perfect for a humpback whale nursery!), scientists believe that whales love this area so much, given the low amount of natural predators, the human-imposed protections around the Hawaiian Islands (the area is designated as the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary), and the high visibility of the water. 

The Auau channel is located on the western side of the island, with most tours departing from the town of Lahaina (although some tours also depart from Kihei or Māʻalaea). 

Two humpback whales displaying surface active behavior on Maui whale watching tour

We made Lahaina our homebase during our stay on the island and I’d highly recommend doing the same- it has a cute little downtown area and it was very convenient being so close to where a lot of the activities we did (including the whale watching tour!) were located.

If you’re looking for places to stay in Lahaina, I’d recommend checking out the Napili Sunset Beachfront Resort, The Mauian Hotel, and Aston Kaanapali Shores for clean and modern accommodations at a reasonably affordable rate (or as affordable as Maui gets anyway!). 

4. You can see whales from shore on Maui’s leeward side.

If you’re on a budget or just don’t want to go on a full-blown whale watching tour, you have a decent shot of seeing whales from the shores of Maui’s southwestern side. Note that you may hear this referred to as the “leeward” side, which relates to the direction of the tradewinds- people LOVE to talk like sailors in Hawai’i!

Humpback whale breaching in Maui

While your view of whales from the shore won’t be the best, you may be able to catch some spouts (when they expel air from their blowhole, causing surface water to shoot up) or some tail-slapping, even at a distance. Some of the best places to watch from shore are:

Want to have a better shot of seeing the whales from shore? Bring along some binoculars (which have the added bonus of really upping your *distinguished sailor* vibes).

5. But you’ll have a much better chance- and a better view- if you take a boat tour.

Whales tend to swim at least a couple miles offshore, so it’s no surprise you’ll have a better chance of getting a closer look from a boat- plus you’ll benefit from having a naturalist on board who can answer all of your burning questions about the fifth largest species of whale. But, with all of the options for tours, it can be hard to pick which one is right for you! 

One of the benefits of going with a tour is that the naturalist will usually put a hydrophone underwater, which lets you hear the whales’ beautiful songs!

Ranging from group tours with hundreds of people (usually costing around $40 per person) to bougie and intimate sailing excursions with champagne toasts (costing well over $100 per person), there’s something out there for everyone:

  • The most common type of tour is on a catamaran, which can hold groups of up to 150 people. While these are generally one of the most affordable options (starting around $40 per person and up), it can also be the most impersonal, given that they’re usually guided by a captain and naturalist speaking over a microphone and loudspeaker. 

    This was the option my husband and I went with Pacwhale Eco Adventures. We selected this company, given that all profits go to support their sister company, Pacific Whale Foundation, a legit nonprofit dedicated to the research and conservation of whales, dolphins, and other marine life. I was SO impressed by their knowledgeable and friendly staff and would highly recommend booking through them- if you’re looking for a snorkeling tour, they offer some of those as well!
  • If you’re looking for a more intimate whale-watching experience, sailboats typically hold 60 people or less and often come with more upscale perks, like open bars or free breakfast. One of the best options for this is Sail Maui.
  • On a raft tour (like a Zodiac), you’ll be with an even tinier group, usually less than 20 people and can cover more ground (well… water), given the rafts’ peppy speeds. That being said, it can be a pretty bumpy ride and can be uncomfortable for those with back and neck problems. For these tours, check out Redline Rafting Co.
  • Kayaking or canoeing in an outrigger allows you to both get some stellar exercise in- and have a much more personal experience with a whale! You’ll obviously be much more limited in where you can go on one of these tours, but your guides will bring you to spots where you’ll have the best chance of seeing whales and provide you a unique, adrenaline-pumping experience. Check out this tour and this tour for this option.
  • There’s even some scuba diving tours, like this one, that take certified divers to seek out where you’re likely to see a whale. Hearing the whales’ songs underwater is supposed to intensely vibrate your whole body- sounds incredible!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the options, not to worry- we wrote a whole post all about the best whale watching tours in Maui!

Humpback whale breaching on Maui whale watching tour

Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling, or in any kind of boat, always be sure to stay at least 100 yards away from whales at all times. And that’s not just to protect these magnificent creatures- it’s actually required under U.S. federal law.

6. Schedule a morning whale watch if you can- the earlier, the better.

Booking an early morning cruise has a ton of benefits:

  • Many companies offer a discount for their earlier morning cruises to entice you out of bed. Embarrassingly, this is probably the primary reason I booked our tour that departed at 6:30 AM- but I’m so glad that I did!
  • Remember how I said I went on a catamaran tour, which is typically the cheapest but most crowded option? Our early morning tour was on a weekend, during Maui’s busiest tourist season AND during the height of whale-watching season- and still only had less than 30 people on our 150-person boat. So, chances are much better you’ll be able to move around the boat with ease and not have to fight with strangers for the best view if you’re willing to set your alarm clock just a few hours earlier.
  • You’ll get to see the sunrise over Maui from the water on your way out, which, I can confirm, is a spectacular way to wake up.
  • The typical trade winds of Maui make it so that the waves are typically calm in the morning and more choppy later in the day (although, of course, it’s different every day). Not only will it be more challenging to spot whales in the afternoons’ rougher waters, but you also have a higher chance of getting seasick. 
  • If you’re a photography enthusiast like me, the lighting is spectacular in the morning- soft, glowy golden light, as opposed to the harsh lighting of the midday sun (this also makes it easier to spot the whales without the glare on the water).
Sunrise over Maui

While I’m all about the early morning cruises, there’s no such thing as a bad time to go whale watching (except at night, given that, you know, you have to be able to see and all). Whales are not more active at any particular time of the day, so if an afternoon tour is what works with your schedule, don’t let that dissuade you.

7. Book a tour towards the beginning of your trip.

Almost all tour operators will guarantee seeing a whale during the wintertime- meaning, if you return from your tour without seeing one, you can rebook another tour for free within a certain period (usually a year). While you’ll almost certainly see a whale if you visit during the migration period (these guys don’t stay in business by giving out a bunch of free tours!), I’d recommend booking your trip at the very beginning of your time in Maui, so you’ll have an opportunity to reschedule if needed.

8. Let your ears help you spot whales.

While you’re on the boat, everyone is going to be on whale-spotting duty, scanning the water for signs of activity. But it’s not uncommon for you to actually hear a whale before you see one- like when they’re at the surface, blowing all of the air out of their lungs (which is generally the size of a small vehicle) through a hole smaller than a dinner plate.

Note that, most of the time when you see a whale blowing like that (also called “spouting”), they usually are just taking a breath at the surface, only to dive into the depths of the ocean immediately afterwards for at least 45 minutes (a telltale sign of a diving whale is when their tail is fully and evenly out of the water). So you’re mostly going to want to keep an eye (and ear!) out instead for surface active whales, who might be displaying behaviors like slapping their fins or tails or, of course, breaching, when they acrobatically launch their 30+ ton bodies out of the water. 

Humpback fluke from Maui whale watching tour

These types of surface behaviors not only make sounds that humans can hear, but also the creatures underwater. While scientists aren’t sure why whales display a lot of their behaviors, it’s believed that many of these activities are linked to communicating with other whales around them, like alerting others to predators or attracting a mate.

9. Treat the boat like a clock.

Most captains will treat their boats like a clock, with the bow being 12 o’clock and the stern being 6 o’clock. Letting the captain know you saw a whale at “4 o’clock” is much more helpful than gesturing wildly to the expansive open sea and yelling “I saw something over there!”.

On a similar note, be sure to keep an eye out not just towards the front of the ship, but all around the ship (including the back). Whales can pop up out of the water anywhere- and actually have a propensity of diving under and coming up towards the back of ships. 

10. Here’s some things to make sure are on your Hawaii packing list that will make your whale-watching experience as awesome as possible.

  • Seasickness meds, if you tend to have problems with motion
  • A light waterproof jacket (like like this one for men and this one for women), especially if you go in the cooler mornings
  • Reef-safe sunscreen– you’ll be spending at least a couple of hours directly in the sun
  • A good camera with a zoom lens (we use this camera with this lens)- definitely not a necessity but we wouldn’t have been able to get all of the awesome photos in this post without ours!
  • Drybag, if you’re going in a raft, kayak, or canoe, to keep your belongings dry
  • Binoculars, especially if you’re going outside of the main whale watching season, to help you see mammoth creatures that are farther away better
  • Cash to tip the naturalists and captain on your tour
Man with zoom lens on Maui whale watching tour

Now get out there and see some whales. Have any questions about Maui whale watching? Drop me a line in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Maui Whale Watching Guide: Everything You Need to Know About the Pacific’s Best Acrobats”

  1. Hi,
    A friend has invited me to go to Hawaii (Maui). I have always wanted to see humpback whales but if we go in November I’m afraid we’ll miss the whales. Am I wrong?

    Reply
    • Hi Mary,
      The humpbacks start showing up in November, with the peak season usually between December and February. I’d say you’d have a good chance of spotting whales in November, but if you want to maximize your chances of seeing them, the later winter months would be a surer bet.
      Hope you get to see these magnificent creatures!

      Best,

      Jess

      Reply

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