Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Humpback whales have returned to the Hawaiian Islands, making their annual visit to the destination’s warm waters to calve and breed, and the massive sea creatures have been active around the island of Oahu in early December.

“The report from the captains is they’re seeing whales almost every day right now, which is pretty good for early December,” said Chris Henderson, whale-watching manager for Star of Honolulu Cruises & Events.

Henderson added that the tour operator has seen an increase in the number of humpbacks around Oahu’s southern shore in recent years.

Hawaii’s humpback season generally begins with occasional sightings in November, building slowly through December before hitting its stride in January, February and early March. The season tapers off traditionally through April before usually fading entirely by the end of May. Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate more than 10,000 humpback whales will visit the Hawaiian Islands this season.

Offering morning and midday whale-watching products daily starting Dec. 23, the 1,500-passenger Star of Honolulu typically takes clients out toward the marine preserve near Diamond Head, off shore from Waikiki, or farther west along Oahu’s south shore, Henderson reported.

Humpback sightings have also increased in recent years on the island’s west coast, according to Victoria Collins, a marine biologist who owns Wild Side Specialty Tours, who noted that she’s seeing more humpback calves now earlier in the year.

“Newborns [typically] began to be seen nearer to January,” she said. “Now we’re seeing them in November.”

Wild Side offers dolphin and snorkeling tours year round, departing from west Oahu’s Waianae Boat Harbor, but the provider adds dedicated humpback whale-watching excursions during the season, with tours maxing out at 10 passengers.

“We really like to have smaller groups,” explained Sofia Dahl, the Wild Side manager.  “And we specialize in a more personalized experience.”

Although Maui is often considered the best place to whale-watch in the Hawaiian Islands each year, in part because of the relatively shallow water between the Valley Isle, Molokai and Lanai, both Henderson and Dahl said Oahu stacks up well in comparison and offers travelers a great chance to see humpback behavior reasonably close up.

“It’s been documented that humpbacks are more likely to breach here in the breeding grounds,” Henderson said. “So we get a little bit more action here than they do up in Alaska.”

Humpbacks may not be the only sea creatures folks spot on tours, as Hawaiian green sea turtles and spinner dolphins make frequent cameos. According to Dahl, who is also a marine biologist, Hawaii is home to 18 toothed whales and dolphin species, with some making occasional tour appearances as well.

“We also see pilot whales, false killer whales and melon-headed whales,” she said, noting those creatures could be spotted year round. “We don’t see them every single day, but we have them here, and we do come across them.” 

Wild Side tour products start at $175 for adults and $145 for children. Whale-watching tours aboard the Star of Honolulu, based near Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor, begin at $46 for adults and $29 for kids and include a meal. Ground transportation can be arranged for Star of Honolulu clients staying in Waikiki, Ko Olina or Kahala. 


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