Hawaii hardly needs building up as a deeply desirable place to visit. It’s, you know… HAWAII. And yet, exactly when you choose to visit this Pacific paradise can make the difference between amazing and spectacularly — dare we say mind-blowingly — amazing. That would be during the humpback whale migration, a sight that we venture makes even Mother Nature weak in the knees. And guess what. It’s happening right now, while this year’s relentless winter clings to much of North America. Who says Bucket List trips can’t be an act of spontaneity?
Once North Pacific humpback whales have eaten their fill of krill in Alaskan waters throughout the summer, the Pavarottis* of the seas begin the 8-week, 6,000-mile-long trip to the warm waters of the Hawaiian islands for a season of mating, child-bearing, and nursing that lasts from November to May. And it’s quite the traffic jam. Scientists at the NOAA-managed Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary estimate that up to 10,000 of the endangered 45-ton beasties visit the islands every year out of a population that may now number over 20,000. That’s a remarkable feat of conservation for a species that was nearly extinct by 1965 due to a century of frenzied whale hunting. (*NatGeo Fun Fact: Only male humpback whales sing, and their song is the most complex in the animal kingdom.)
As you’d expect, this epic annual event has spawned a big-time whale-watching cruise tour industry. All of the Fab Four islands now get visits from the humpbacks and there are dozens of tours from scores of departure points across Hawaii, but the whales still have a few favorite spots. These are:
- The 4-island group of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe
- The Penguin Band, a shallow 25-mile stretch off western Molokai
Across the wonderful world of travel, shoulder season getaways bring some perks, and so’s the case with whale-watching in Hawaii. The peak of the 7-month North Pacific humpback whale migration season spans January to March, but there are still plenty of whales to see in April and May on far less crowded boats at lower prices. Anchors aweigh!
GoHawaii.com, the official website of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, lists 10 certified whale-watching tour operators for you to check out. There are many more, but this is a reliable source to help you start exploring your thrill-of-a-lifetime wildlife encounter.
Our favorite is Maui’s non-profit Pacific Whale Foundation, a Sustainable Tourism Certified eco-tour operator that features a certified marine naturalist leading every excursion (tours start at $33 as of March 2018). The operation is founded on 4 decades of whale research and ocean conservation, and ALL of PWF’s profits are directed to programs dedicated to saving whales and supporting the mission to protect our oceans through science and advocacy.
Whatever the timing of your adventure, it’s important to know a few things to look out for to ensure the best and most responsible outing. Here’s a small but key tour operator checklist:
- Whale-sighting guaranteed or a full refund issued
- Waterborne microphone so you can hear the whale song
- Expert narrator/guide
- Captain who confirms that he complies with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, requiring a distance of at least 100 yards between the boat and the humpback whales and, in fact, all marine mammals and sea turtles. (Shockingly, many tour operators blatantly flout their violation of these U.S. Federal Laws on TripAdvisor by displaying pictures of their boats all but ramming into whales and dolphins. Don’t reward them with your business!)
Boats not your thing? Or maybe your time is short, budget maxed out, or your schedule is already jam-packed with no room left for another excursion. If getting out on a multi-hour whale-watching cruise tour isn’t an option, you’re nothing like out of luck. There are what can fairly be called countless locations across the islands where you can see the whales from shore, and you’ll feel plenty close when a 50-foot humpback breaches over 40% of her body out of the water directly in front of you! Even without binoculars you’ll get a heart-thumping eyeful — the whales tend to congregate fairly close to shore, in waters less than 600 feet deep.
So, some spots are still better than others, right? Right. The experts at the marine sanctuary put together a handy list of their picks for the Top 10 locations on land to settle in and catch sight of blows, pec slaps, fluke-up dives, and breaches by Hawaii’s humpbacks. The list also provides directions, tips, and more. The hot spots include:
- Papawai Point, Maui
- Makapu’u Lighthouse, Oahu
- Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Kauai
- Lapakahi State Historical Park, Hawaii
And the #1 tip from absolutely everyone? On land or sea, for heaven’s sake don’t forget your camera!
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