What is the Best Island to see Whales in Hawaii?

humpback whale tail sighting in Maui

Every year thousands of humpback whales make their way from Alaska to Hawaii, to find comfort in the warm tropical waters for breeding, birthing and raising their calves. 

So, where do humpback whales spend their time when they are in Hawaii?

More than 10,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaii every year, they settle in the waters around Big Island, Kauai and Oahu, with the majority of the population traveling to the Maui Nui Basin, the waters between Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Because Maui is the most saturated with humpback whales of all the islands, it became a protected sanctuary for them in 1992 when NOAA began developing protection acts for the endangered species. 

The Hawaii Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Division of NOAA created maps tracking the migration of humpback whales to Hawaii islands. These maps show us where the majority of the population spends their time in the tropical waters. With the help of these whale maps, we can see where the humpback whales are located, making it easy to select the best places for whale sightings in Hawaii! Using the NOAA map for whale locations in Hawaii is a great way to create a whale sighting map and determine the best place to see whales in Hawaii!

Marine Managed Areas of Hawaii

The red areas of map #1 Marine Managed Areas, show the sanctuaries created to protect marine animals, the largest in the Maui Nui Basin for humpback whale protection. 

marine managed areas of Hawaii islands

The glowing areas noted on this map #2 Humpback Whale Surface Sightings, tracks how many whales populate these waters seasonally. The darkest red areas show the most whale sightings, once again in the Maui Nui Basin between the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

hawaii whale route map

The best place to see whales in Maui is throughout the south and west coast, the west coast being the location with the most whale activity. 

The south coast of Maui includes the Wailea, Kihei and Maalaea areas, there are many resorts, condos and beautiful beaches in these areas and you can often see whales from shore during peak season! There are also whale watching tour charters that leave from both Kihei boat ramp and Maalaea to take guests whale watching on the water. 

The west coast of Maui includes Lahaina, Kaanapali, Kahana, Kapalua and Napili, also with great beaches and accomodations offering whale sightings from shore. Because humpback whales migrate to Hawaii for mating, giving birth and raising their young, the amazing reefs along the west coast of Maui, specifically Lahaina, are go-to spots for humpback whales!

Olowalu reef is the oldest and largest reef systems in Hawaii, spanning 1000 acres along the west coast of Lahaina, Maui. Olowalu reef is a shallow safe environment, making it the go-to nursery for mama humpback whales and their calves. 

Male humpback whales spend their time in Maui seeking a female to mate with. Even if the female is about to give birth or has a young calf,  the male will take his 5% change of mating. We call these male whales, Escorts. You will often see these small whale groups and hear naturalists refer to them as mom, calf, escort. The escort is not the father to the calf traveling with the pair. 

Other whale encounters you may have would be a group of whales called a competition pod. These competition pods include 1 female and multiple male whales, 2-50 males or more, all competing for the mating rights of the female. Using their flukes, rostrums and pectoral fins, these males will compete and fight for the dominant position through aggressive behavior towards each other. Solo whale sightings are also very common, and most of the whale songs we hear are of solo whales. All of the loud whale songs we hear are sung by adult male whales. Scientists are still working to discover the reason for whale songs, what we know now is that the song changes every year and is the same song sung by every whale! Other whale surface behavior you may observe include breaching, spyhopping, tail slapping, pec slapping, head lunges and muggings! Humpback whales are amazing gentle giants, don’t miss an opportunity to encounter them!

If you can’t make it to Maui, which is the top location to see whales in Hawaii, then check out these other island whale watching spots!

On the island of Oahu you can see humpback whales along the coast of Honolulu and the Northshore, taking boat tours will increase your chances of whale encounters. 

Big Island hosts humpback whales annually as well, most of the sightings along the west, northwest coast of Hawai’i. Tours out of Kona or Hilo will get you those closer whale encounters. 

For more maps and information on the humpback whale migration to Hawaii, check out https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/documents/maps.html.

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