Getting a jump on whale-watching season

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Humpback whale-watching season in Hawaii typically runs from November to May.
Humpback whale-watching season in Hawaii typically runs from November to May. Photo Credit: Pacific Whale Foundation
Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers onboard the NOAA vessel Hiialakai spotted the first whale of Hawaii’s humpback season Sept. 29 off of Niihau, a private island about 18 miles southwest of Kauai.

Another adult humpback sighting was reported just a few days later along Kauai’s southwestern coast during a Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures tour, according to NOAA officials. Customers on the tour enjoyed not only a breach but also a pectoral fin slap and a fluke, or tail, viewing as the humpback later dove.

Late September is still very early for humpbacks in the Hawaiian Islands, as NOAA officials describe the season running typically from November to May. But the first sighting is often a good time for travel agents to begin thinking about reminding clients of the destination’s added appeal during whale season, especially for travelers who may only need a little nudge toward making a return visit to the Aloha State.

According to NOAA, more than 10,000 humpbacks winter in Hawaiian waters every year, traveling to the islands to mate and calve. Peak viewing typically begins in late December and runs through sometime in March, with February often described as the high point.

And as anybody who’s done a little whale-watching in Hawaii will tell you, the humpbacks generally seem pretty happy to be here. It’s common to see adult whales jumping completely out of the water or performing a range of mating behaviors, such as pectoral fin or tail slaps. On the right day, visitors can often see whales breaching from the shore — even occasionally off the coast of Waikiki.

Some of the best viewing happens, of course, on Maui, where relatively shallow waters between the Valley Isle, Lanai, Molokai and uninhabited Kahoolawe tend to attract the largest number of whales. In late January and February, in fact, it’s not uncommon to hear residents refer to the surrounding Pacific there as whale soup.

A number of larger operators, such as the Pacific Whale Foundation and Trilogy, offer solid whale-watching tour products on Maui, but more adventurous travelers might be keen for a more intimate experience onboard a smaller outrigger canoe. Companies such as Hawaiian Paddle Sports or Maui Paddle Sports offer outings onboard the smaller canoes during whale season that, depending on the day, may get clients extraordinarily close to humpbacks.

Longtime Maui seller Maureen Dinnocenzo, owner of Above & Beyond Travel in Arnold, Calif., has been whale-watching on Maui on many occasions and likes to recommend Aloha Blue Charters to her clients.

“They have a jet-driven boat with no propellers that takes you out without endangering the whales,” she said of the ocean tour company. “Typically they do about 20 people on the boat, and it’s not going to be overcrowded. And when it’s a smaller vessel like that, the whales tend to get closer, [and] I like that. I feel like they’re coming to you.”

It’s important to remember, however, that whales visit all of the islands during Hawaii’s humpback season, so if clients have a destination other than Maui in mind, there will still be opportunities for them to see the majestic creatures in the wild.

And folks shouldn’t forget that the western Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, which again is home to some relatively shallow water, draws a great many humpbacks impressively close to the coastline each year. Travelers will also typically find fewer boats out looking for whales each day on the Big Island compared with what can be a relatively crowded ocean around Maui during peak viewing periods.

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

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