A breaching whale off Maui’s coast // © 2012 Pacific Whale Foundation
Like modern-day Captain Ahabs, people seem compelled to follow whales. The sight of those gentle giants breaching and spouting evokes such strong emotions that travelers have been known to book entire vacations around the experience. And while many destinations present opportunities to witness the splashy spectacle, it’s tough to top Maui as a whale-watching mecca.
Humpbacks are Maui’s most reliable repeat visitors. After summering in the northern Pacific, some 12,000 of the 40-ton leviathans make their way to the warm waters of Hawaii from mid-October through early June, with the largest numbers gravitating to the calm, clear, shallow seas off the west and south shores of Maui.
“Because the whales are here to mate, give birth and care for their young, you can see such thrilling behaviors as male competition pods — a group of males physically vying for the most advantageous position near a female — or young calves practicing breaching and tail slaps,” said Anne Rillero of the Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit Maui-based organization that has been studying whales and working to save them for 33 years.
Ironically, Maui — or more specifically, Lahaina — was the center of whaling in Hawaii in the early- to mid-19th century, when sailors hunted thousands of whales annually and almost wiped out the species before conservation regulations were established. Today, clients can book one of Maui’s many whale watch trips on power and sailing vessels out of Lahaina and Maalaea harbors.
“Lahaina is a good choice for visitors staying in Kaanapali and Kapalua,” Rillero said. “Maalaea is ideal for people in Kihei, Wailea and upcountry Maui. Because our captains generally navigate our vessels to remain in the lee of the West Maui mountains, all of our whale watches operate in the calmest waters available each day.”
Once whale watchers are on the ocean, not only do they see whales within minutes of leaving the harbor, but they have the added benefit of viewing incredible island scenery, said Maui Visitors Bureau (MVB) executive director Terryl Vencl.
“Our humpback whales are surrounded and protected by the islands of Maui Nui as they swim and frolic in our various channels,” said Vencl. “For visitors, this provides some amazing panoramas of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokini. Also, whale watching in Hawaii is distinctive because of our warm weather. Even though it’s winter, guests who go on whale watching/snorkel tours can often hear whale songs while under water.”
All of Hawaii’s whale-watching cruises follow the same law: Boats can approach whales up to 100 yards away, which is generally closer than people would see them from shore. And often, whales will become curious and approach vessels on their own, coming closer than within 100 yards.
“All of our whale-watching outfitters offer various levels of onboard education, including information shared by crew members, printed materials and websites where visitors can learn more,” said Vencl. “Having said that, our visitors have their own idea of the type of ocean experience they want. Like most things here, Maui is big enough to provide lots of options and yet we are small enough to take the work out of having to choose.”
On land, clients can learn more about humpbacks at Whaler’s Village Museum in Kaanapali. Exhibits include the recreated upper deck of a whaling ship, where 25 men lived in cramped quarters for years at a time; one of the world’s largest scale models of a whaling ship; displays of antique ornaments and utensils made from whale ivory and bone; and a rare collection of 19th-century scrimshaw, the indigenous American art form developed by whalers. Three times each week, museum volunteers offer whale talks and answer questions.
By land or sea, Maui’s whales create memories that visitors won’t soon forget. Vencl still recalls her first whale watch cruise from several years ago.
“It was mid-January, during the peak of whale season, and it was truly ‘whale soup’ out there,” said Vencl. “We saw a few breaches that were simply jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. Of course, there were other boats in the water, but what I did not expect to see were all the people and cars at the various on-land lookouts that our vessel passed.
“While ocean tours are surely the best way to see Maui’s whales, it was a reminder that there are many spots on land where visitors and locals can experience great views,” she added. “Some don’t need to go farther than their hotel lanai.”