Seated near the bow of a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe, I lowered my head between my knees and listened to a mother humpback converse with her calf.
Now several hundred yards off the west coast of Maui, the two whales had surfaced only moments earlier, just a matter of feet from the canoe, blowing tall columns of breath into the morning sky before slipping back under the creased, turquoise face of the Pacific.
We'd been so near, in fact, to the mother and her newborn that we'd already heard them communicating, though none of us were actually in the water.
"If you stick your heads down into the canoe, you'll hear them better," our Maui Paddle Sports guide instructed.
Maui Paddle Sports offers whale-watching canoe tours.
I followed those directions, and the sound of whale songs intensified, becoming remarkably clear before the mom and her little one got further away from the boat.
"How about that?" the guide said afterward with a wide smile. "Sometimes they're so loud it shakes the whole canoe."
Humpback whales migrate to the Hawaiian Islands to calve and breed, arriving in late fall and typically staying through the end of April. The most whale activity can be seen in the relatively shallow waters between the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and uninhabited Kahoolawe. Many Maui residents seem to agree that February is the peak of humpback season, and during my stay earlier this month at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa on Kaanapali Beach, I often heard the waters around the island described as "whale soup."
Westin Maui guests can arrange a 90-minute outrigger canoe excursion with Maui Paddle Sports through the hotel's concierge, departing from the northern end of the resort community not too far from the iconic Black Rock, or Puu Kekaa, lava formation. Although an up-close encounter with humpbacks isn't guaranteed, the chance to paddle away from the shoreline and look back on Maui from the ocean is always magical. And who knows what wildlife may show up during the outing, which costs $85 per person. Hawaiian green sea turtles, for example, make regular appearances.
Work on a $70 million overhaul to the 553 guestrooms and suites in the Westin Maui's Ocean Tower wrapped up last year, and according to the property's general manager, Gregg Lundberg, the redo is "the most comprehensive renovation" completed at the property since Westin took over management in 1987.
"It really needed an overhaul," he explained. "New plumbing, high-speed Internet system, [and] the rooms were stripped down to the bare concrete and then rebuilt."
Improvements also included new furnishings and decor throughout, spacious Heavenly Showers in the bathrooms, and replacing the formerly barred railings on each guestroom's lanai with transparent glass barriers.
Rooms in the Westin Maui’s Ocean Tower were renovated last year.
"It's so much brighter and more open now with the glass railings," said Duke Ah Moo, Pleasant Holidays vice president of product development, who visited the property last year. "There's no real impediment to the ocean now, or the mountains, depending on which side of the building you're staying on, [and] I thought that made a huge difference."
The glass railings certainly made whale-watching a highlight during my recent stay in an oceanfront room, where I saw dozens of adult humpbacks jump completely out of the water and more spouts, pectoral fin slaps and flukes, or tail fins, than I could count.
"The whales all by themselves are a major pull for Maui," Lundberg said. "And you don't even have to go out on a boat. You can just sit on the beach and see the whales breaching right out in front of you [or] just enjoy them from the lanai on your room."
According to Pleasant's Moo, however, the recent guestroom overhaul did a great deal more than just enhance humpback-viewing opportunities at the Westin Maui.
"It wasn't terrible before, but I think the property needed to be updated to keep up with all of the new developments going on in Maui," he said. "There's a lot of new product in Maui — of course, new hotels like the Andaz, but there are also newly renovated rooms like at the Hyatt, for example. [And] I think the Westin really needed an update to keep in line with the competition."