Humpback whales, which migrate from their summer feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska to the waters around Hawaii in the winter, are a top attraction for Aloha State visitors from November to May. Groups of whales, including mothers with their calves, can be seen blowing their spouts, spyhopping (peaking their heads above the water line), slapping their fins and leaping their 30-ton bodies fully out of the water.
The most common ways to see the marine mammals is on boat tours or with a pair of binoculars and good oceanside cliff or lanai, and during peak whale season from January to March there are numerous whale-related events and activities.
Offering a different perspective on the typical whale-watching experience, Blue Hawaiian has launched two new helicopter tours, one from Maui and one on the Island of Hawaii, focused on spotting the cetaceans from the sky.
The Hawaiian Islands are a national marine sanctuary for humpback whales, and the area is a breeding and birthing ground for the animals.
"The breeding and reproductive season is truly an amazing sight to behold and one that our guests have been asking for many years," said Vaihiria Kelley, director of sales and marketing for Blue Hawaiian. "Guests who have had the pleasant surprise to see these graceful and spectacular mammals on one of our other tours have clamored for more."
On Maui there are views of the West Maui Mountains and central valley, in addition to passes over the channel between Maui and Molokai, one of the best areas to see whales in the entire state. On the Big Island the tour flies over the Kona Coast, with views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Both tours allow visitors to observe the whales from 1,000 feet above, and are good alternatives to a boat for people who are prone to seasickness.
The Blue Hawaiian pilots rely on past experience, knowledge of the islands and historical patterns of whale migration to find the traveling humpbacks.
"Over the past several decades, our pilots have developed a sixth sense for knowing the areas that whales like to frequent, which may be different by time of day," Kelley said. "For example, the Pailolo Channel between Maui and Molokai and the Kona Coast on the leeward side of the Big Island are areas that are often concentrated with humpback whale activity during the season, so those areas are high on our radar."
The vantage point from the helicopter allows participants to not only see the whales' activities when they breach the surface of the water, but also follow along as they swim below the surface.
"When touring on a boat, not only are you having to deal with the action of the wind and waves, but unless you happen to see a whale breach you really can't see anything," Kelley said. "It's easier to see humpback whale activity when you have a bit of elevation above ocean level from a cliff near the ocean or even a high floor of an oceanfront condo building, but even better from a helicopter."
Over 10,000 humpbacks migrate annually. Whale watchers have seen births in progress, or dynamic displays of play and athleticism, including twisting jumps and booming tail slaps as males compete for mates and mothers teach their newborns about life in the sea. In addition to humpback whales, sightings of dolphins, manta rays, and sea turtles are also common on the tours.
Although the chances of seeing whales are "quite high," Kelley said, Blue Hawaiian does not guarantee a humpback sighting. Both the Maui and the Island of Hawaii Heli-Whale tours cost $340 per person. Blue Hawaiian also offers group rates for parties of 18 or more as well as customized private charter experiences.