Humpback whales are Hawaii's other visitors every year. They are easy and fun to spot, if you plan to visit between December and May.
Some in Hawaii consider the annual return of the whales (kohola in Hawaiian) to be a homecoming, rather than a visit, because they are actually born in waters off Hawaii. In the native Hawaiian tradition, some whales are considered to be aumakua (family guardians), and therefore are treated with great respect.
Humpbacks can be seen all across the Hawaiian Islands, either from shore (bring your binoculars), where you can see them breach or spout (their spouts can be 10-20 feet high), or from a whale watching tour, to view them closer up. All watercraft is required to stay at least 100 yards from the whales, but that doesn't seem far at all when one lunges up out of the sea.
Amazingly graceful acrobats, the enormous whales (males can weigh up to 45 tons) can propel up to 40 percent of their body out of the water when they "breach," and then land back in the water with a spectacular splash.
Whale Watching on Maui
Maui was the center of whaling in Hawaii from 1825 to 1860, specifically the port town of Lahaina. You can still take in some of the ambience of those whaling days at the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, built near the harbor in 1901.
A great place to view humpback whales on Maui is the shallow Auau Channel that runs between West Maui (Lahaina and Ka'anapali), Lanai, and Molokai. Or you can sign up for whale watching tours at one of the kiosks at Lahaina Harbor; choices range from charter boats to passenger rafts. Most tours are around two to four hours long. Other whale watching tours depart from Ma'alaea Harbor, north of Kihei, as well as from McGregor Point, west of Ma'alaea, or from the beaches at Ka'anapali, Kihei, and Wailea.
Maui's Whaling History
The whaling museum at Whalers Village Mall, in Ka'anapali, should be your first stop and not just because it has free admission. The museum takes you back in time and shows you Hawaii during whaling days through the eyes of an ordinary "whaleman." Exhibits include a whaling ship forecastle and its cramped sailor's quarters where 25 men lived together on voyages as long as five years, antique ornaments and utensils made of whalebone, and 19th-century scrimshaw.
And at Kihei's beachfront Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center, you can learn about how Native Hawaiians interacted with the kohola and about its habitat, and about other Native Hawaiian values, practices, and traditions.
Where Else to Whale Watch
On Kauai, you can easily whale watch from beautiful spots like Poipu Beach on the island's south shore, and Kilauea Lighthouse and the Na Pali Coast's Kalalau Trail on the north shore. The Kapa'a overlook, between Kapa'a town and Kealia Beach, is another promising spot to see whales, and many whale-watching tours operate out of Na Pali and Poipu.
On Oahu, humpbacks can be seen from the beach or from southeastern spots like Makapu'u Lighthouse, Hanauma Bay, and scenic overlooks near Diamond Head. Tons of whale watching tours and cruises depart from ports along Oahu's southern and western harbors.
On the Big Island, you can spot whales from various beaches along the Kohala, North Kohala and Hamakua coasts, and in Hilo Bay. Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is another good vantage point, with sweeping and elevated views near Kawaihae Harbor ("pu'ukohola means "hill of whales").
And If You're Really Far Away...
When you're in Hawaii, you can listen underwater and hear the humpbacks' whale song from up to 12 miles away. But if you're more than 12 miles away, you can listen to live whale songs online. There's even a live whale song app for the iPhone.
Photo credits: All photos via Dreamstime.com