Maui Celebrates Return of the Whales

The island’s 2010 Whale Festival promises to be the biggest ever.

By: By Marty Wentzel

When it comes to repeat Maui visitors, one group surpasses them all. I’m talking about the legions of 40-ton humpback whales that make the long trek to Hawaii each winter from the waters off the coast of Alaska. Just as reliably, the annual Maui Whale Festival honors their return with a line-up of special events throughout February.

Humpback whales return to Maui’s waters each year.// (C) 2009 Pacific Whale Foundation

Humpback whales return to Maui’s waters each year.// (C) 2009 Pacific Whale Foundation

Drawing thousands of visitors and residents, the Maui Whale Festival is the brainchild of the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), which dedicates itself to protecting the mammoth mammals as they mate and give birth in Hawaii’s warm waters. It’s no fluke that the upcoming festival — timed with PWF’s 30th anniversary — is promising clients more entertainment and education than ever.

“Maui is where the next generation of whales is conceived and born, so we see the festival as a celebration of hope and promise for the future,” said PWF president Greg Kaufman. “We want to raise awareness of these magnificent animals and help all people realize the importance of protecting them and their habitat in Hawaii.”

Throughout the month, clients can go on whale-watching trips with top scientists and environmentalists. They can visit a west Maui humpback whale lookout station staffed daily by PWF naturalists; take part in stargazing and whale song cruises; and bring the kids to whale-oriented storytelling sessions in Maalaea. They can also attend Kaufman’s dynamic multimedia presentation about the ocean’s gentle giants; go on guided moonlight explorations of tide pools; and sign up for a two-day whale symposium featuring talks, workshops and presentations by renowned researchers and educators at the Westin Maui.

The Run for the Whales — a festival high point — invites clients on a scenic course that winds along the coast of south Maui. From the starting line at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, participants can choose to conquer the 5K walk or fun run, half-marathon run or 2K children’s race. There’s even a category for groups of up to five people who can participate as a connected pod. Entry fees, which come with a race T-shirt and post-race breakfast, benefit marine education programs for the island’s schoolchildren.

The annual Parade of Whales, on South Kihei Road, features such merriment as floats, gymnasts, marching bands, costumed characters and a life-sized humpback whale balloon. The parade segues into Whale Day, the signature event of the festival. Billed as a free, all-day party in the park, it features two stages of live entertainment, food booths showcasing the cuisine of island chefs, a Made on Maui area, environmental displays, activities for children, an organic farmer’s market and plenty of whale information.

The whalefest continues into the evenings with such fundraisers as the Pint Night Benefit at the Maui Brewing Company, whose motto for the evening is “drink the ales, save the whales.” Clients can take part in the Flatbread Pizza Benefit Night in the town of Paia, and they can enjoy an outdoor dinner and comedy show by Augie T — one of Hawaii’s favorite stage and radio entertainers — at Kalama Park.

“We have so many events this year that they’re spilling over into the months of January and March,” said Kaufman, “adding up to an entire winter’s worth of fun.”