How to Whale Watch by Outrigger Canoe

How to Whale Watch by Outrigger Canoe

Local operator Hawaiian Paddle Sports teaches teamwork during a Maui whale-watching tour By: Marty Wentzel
<p>Clients can see whales during outrigger canoe tours from late December to early April. // © 2016 Hawaiian Paddle Sports</p><p>Feature image...

Clients can see whales during outrigger canoe tours from late December to early April. // © 2016 Hawaiian Paddle Sports

Feature image (above): Guests glide across smooth Maui seas on a Hawaiian Paddle Sports tour. // © 2016 Hawaiian Paddle Sports

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Fast Facts

- Hawaiian Paddle Sports’ Outrigger Canoe Whale Watch Tour is offered from late December to early April.

- The cost is $149 per person for a three-hour tour; the tour is not recommended for children.

- The company also offers year-round kayak tours, surfing lessons and stand-up paddleboarding.

The Details

Hawaiian Paddle Sports

“Imua!” called out Kepa Naeole, a guide for Hawaiian Paddle Sports.

“Imua” is the Hawaiian word for "forward," and the rest of us responded by picking up our paddles and stroking in unison. We were sitting in a six-person Hawaiian outrigger canoe, and our common purpose was Maui whale watching.

Hawaiian Paddle Sports' seasonal Outrigger Canoe Whale Watch Tour combines an appealing mix of Maui attributes. It introduces guests to the outrigger canoe, a traditional craft deeply rooted in the local heritage, and it provides clients with a better understanding of the island’s geography and culture. It also gives guests up-close, eco-friendly encounters with the humpback whales that migrate to the islands each winter to mate and give birth.

Getting Ready
Our tour group gathered at dawn on a southwest Maui beach. Naeole — who was born and raised on the island — talked about the canoe’s importance in Hawaii, from the days of the earliest Polynesian explorers to contemporary paddling teams that race between the islands. 

Following Naeole’s lead, we joined forces to prepare the canoe for its launch. Then we practiced our strokes and learned the commands that he would give us during the tour. 

“By paddling together, we can move much faster in an outrigger canoe than in individual kayaks,” Naeole said. 

Propelled only by manpower, the canoe symbolizes the green philosophy of Hawaiian Paddle Sports. The company has won accolades for its ocean conservation practices, and each month it donates a portion of its sales to a charity or nonprofit group.

We timed our launch between waves, slid the canoe in tandem, jumped into our seats and ventured out in search of whales.

Heading to Sea
In the days leading up to this early-February excursion, the humpbacks were out in full force. From shore, we had already spotted them spouting and breaching, but now, we were moving toward more intimate encounters.

Federal law prohibits boaters from approaching whales closer than 100 yards, or about the length of a football field. Since mature whales measure about 50 feet long, visitors still get an eyeful of the gentle giants from the required distance. 

Of course, whales are wild animals, and they don’t automatically appear during a tour. As we scanned the sea for telltale spouts, fins and tales, Naeole talked about the Hawaiian language, shared Maui legends and pointed out sites of interest. In front of us was Kahoolawe, which the U.S. military used as a bombing range during World War II. After years of local protest, the island was returned to Hawaii in the early 1990s. Nearby is the partially-sunken crater of Molokini, a marine life sanctuary that’s popular with snorkel and dive tours. Behind us were the slopes of Haleakala, the massive dormant volcano rich in myth and history. 

Thar She Blows
All of a sudden, we saw a splash. 

“Imua!” Naeole called, and we paddled toward the action. 

Approaching us were a female humpback and her calf. We stopped paddling and sat in awe as the mother leapt into the air, followed in kind by her baby. It was a show like no other, and we had front-row seats.

Throughout the adventure, that exciting scene replayed itself in different locations with different whales. Between sightings, Naeole regaled us with fun facts about humpbacks and other marine life, pointing out sea turtles along the way. With his waterproof camera, he took photos that he later emailed to us.

After three exhilarating hours, we glided toward shore and once again collaborated, hauling the canoe up the beach to its resting place. As our Maui morning at sea ended, we left with a newfound passion for Hawaiian paddling, culture and marine life, as well as a new understanding of the meaning of teamwork.