Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Nature lovers following Hawaii headlines might have noticed the first humpback whale of this year’s season was sighted in waters off the Big Island Aug. 30, one of the earliest documented humpback viewings in state history.



“That one must have been really excited to get here,” said Christine Brammer, a programs specialist for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “Typically whale season would be late November, early December running through May.”

According to Brammer, Hawaii is the only state in the nation where humpbacks come to mate, calve and nurse, which led to the National Marine Sanctuary designation by Congress in 1992. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpbacks, weighing up to 50 tons, visit the Islands from November to May, taking advantage of the warm, relatively well-protected and shallow waters around the Islands, and many put on quite a show while they’re here.

“Humpbacks are the most acrobatic whales,” Brammer said, noting the creatures’ wide array of breaching and tail- or fin-slapping behaviors. “And Hawaii is truly a unique place to see that because you just can’t see those behaviors anywhere else in the country. They do exhibit some of them in the feeding grounds, but it’s just so different in the mating grounds, and there is so much more of it.”

One of Hawaii’s most memorable visitor activities, whale-watching can certainly be an exciting outing throughout the humpback season, but for travelers interested in the best time to see the giant marine creatures, January, February and March are the months to plan on.

During a stay in Wailea on Maui in February of last year, I lost track of how many humpbacks I saw breaching only a few hundred yards offshore just from the lanai of my hotel room. And later, while driving north along the coastline toward Lahaina, I had a hard time focusing on the road at times because I was distracted by so many whale spouts and flukes.

“Whale-watching vessels will typically begin to advertise guaranteed whale sightings mid-December to mid-April,” Brammer said, “But January, February and March you’re pretty much guaranteed to see whales from the shoreline if you’re able to be patient enough to keep an eye out.”

Brammer recommended higher elevation locations, such as the Makapuu Point Lighthouse trail on west Oahu, the Kilauea Point Lighthouse on the North Shore of Kauai, McGregor Point on Maui and the North Kona and Kohala coasts on the Big Island for visitors interested in viewing whales from the shore.

Whale-watching boat tours in Hawaii generally run between $40 and $100 per person, depending on the length of the outing and a passenger’s age, but are often commissionable to agents and do frequently feature a guarantee involving free admission to another tour if whales aren’t seen the first time around. Booking the boat activities in advance is wise during peak whale-watching season, and not a bad suggestion for clients who fell in love with Hawaii during a summertime visit and are looking for a terrific excuse to return.

“People should also know that it’s illegal to approach a whale closer than 100 yards on the water,” Brammer said. “And that law actually applies to any type of water activity, so in addition to boats that means kayakers, stand-up paddlers, surfers, swimmers, snorkelers, anything. It’s just really dangerous to be any closer than that to a whale.”

For more about Hawaii’s humpback whales, visit hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov.
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