Photo: idreamphoto/Shutterstock

The Best Places to Go Whale Watching in Hawai'i

Hawaii Wildlife
by Katie Scott Aiton Mar 8, 2024

Every winter, from approximately December to May, more than 20,000 humpback whales migrate from the Alaskan feeding grounds to the warm waters of Hawai’i. They make this journey to breed, give birth, and nurse their young. Hawai’i is the only state in the US where they do this. The winter sanctuary offered by Hawai’i’s warm, shallow waters is safeguarded by the people and culture of the islands.

“Native Hawaiians have a powerful spiritual connection to all forms of life,” says the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Through story-telling, language (humpback is koholā in the Hawaiian), place names, and petroglyphs throughout Hawai’i, whales and their winter arrival are honored.

Ocean stewardship is encouraged among the residents of Hawai’i and, of course, its visitors, and if you’re interested, you can get involved in beach cleanups and the annual Sanctuary Ocean Count — a shore-based humpback whale monitoring project — through Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Volunteer Program. Whales are also safeguarded by federal law, which prohibits all vessels and people from approaching humpback whales within 100 yards.

Due to the sheer numbers that come to the islands, Hawai’i is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. Each island provides world-class shore-based whale watching opportunities and boat tours that offer scenic ocean views, expert guides, and an opportunity to see the magnificent mammals up close. Tours typically last between two hours to half a day and cost between $100 and $150 per person.

Across the islands, here are the top locations and tours for unforgettable whale watching in Hawai’i.

What month is best for whale watching in Hawai’i?

The best month for whale watching in Hawai’i is generally February. However, the peak season is from December to April. Humpbacks come to Hawai’i for protection. According to Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, mothers migrate to mitigate the risk of predators (primarily orcas) on the newborn calfs. The warm water also provides a nurturing environment for the young, who are born with little fat (or blubber.)

If you’d like to get involved in the Sanctuary Ocean Count, you can register here. The project depends on volunteers who gather annually on the last Saturday of January, February, and March from 8:00 AM to 12:15 PM at various locations in Oʻahu, Hawai’i Island, and Kauaʻi. On Maui, you can join The Great Whale Count, led by the Pacific Whale Foundation, on the same dates.

Whale watching in Maui

The shallow and calm waters of Auʻau Channel between Maui, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi offer protection — the perfect environment for humpback courtship, mating, and giving birth — and a tranquil setting for mother-calf interactions. Maui is one of the best places in the US for land-based whale watching. There are various spots on the shore where you can spot whales during the season, including the beaches of Pu’u Ola’i, Makena, Kāʻanapali, Kīhei, and Wailea, McGregor Point lookout, and Lahaina Pali Trailhead.

Historically, the port town of Lāhainā was the whaling hub of Hawai’i from 1825 to 1860. Today, you can learn about the community’s journey from being a whaling port to a place of conservation. Lāhainā Harbor is lined with companies offering whale watching tours. These range from charter boats to passenger rafts and are competitive in service and price. You can also paddle out and join the humpbacks in the water with Hawaiian Paddle Sports. They run private and small group kayak tours where “everyone gets a front-row seat,” the company tells Matador Network. Taking to the water on a kayak is a more peaceful experience for guests and the whales who don’t like to be disturbed by the noise of a boat engine. The company reiterates that you must keep a safe distance of 100 yards from the mammals, but this promises an experience you’ll never forget.

The best places for whale watching in Maui:

  • Kāʻanapali Beach
  • Kīhei Beach
  • Lahaina Pali Trailhead
  • McGregor Point
  • Makena Beach
  • Pu’u Ola’i Beach
  • Wailea Beach

Whale watching in Oʻahu

Oʻahu — home to Honolulu, Waikiki — is a popular base for visitors wanting an carefree vacation and for island-hoppers. There are some very convenient spots where you can see whales breaching, tail-slapping, and spy-hopping from land. Humpbacks can be seen from the South Shore from Honolulu and Waikiki and in the north at Turtle Bay, Sharks Cove, the Hālona Blowhole, and Lānaʻi Lookout. Makapu’u Lighthouse, Hanauma Bay, and Diamond Head are also popular locations with locals.

Taking a boat tour gives you more “guaranteed” opportunities for sightings at beautiful places such as Hanauma Bay and the Makapuu Lighthouse. Tours leave from various locations on the island, including the North Shore, Honolulu, Waikiki, and Ko Olina. Prince Kuhio Tours leave from Kewalo Basin Harbor in Honolulu and runs two highly rated tours: Whale Watching and Sunrise Breakfast Cruise and Whale Watching and Late Breakfast Cruise. Both include a delicious breakfast, last for two hours and sail out towards the world heritage site of Diamond Head crater. Another comfortable option, ideal for families (especially those with young children,) is The Majestic Whale Watching Experience. Majestic tours run on a 150-foot vessel with multiple outdoor viewing decks, indoor air conditioning, and a full-service cocktail bar. Majestic’s on-board naturalist is available to answer questions about whale behavior and biology.

The best places for whale watching in Oʻahu:

  • Diamond Head
  • Hālona Blowhole
  • Hanauma Bay
  • Honolulu
  • Lānaʻi Lookout
  • Makapu’u Lighthouse
  • Sharks Cove
  • Turtle Bay
  • Waikiki

Whale watching in Kauaʻi

Kauaʻi — the Garden Isle of Hawai’i — is known for its stunning green landscapes, which make a dramatic backdrop for land-based whale watching and wicked photo opportunities from the island’s southern and western waters. If you want to sit on a stretch of sand, Kauaʻi’s beaches are relaxed, and you can drive around the island in over two hours. Because of Kauaʻi’s size, if you have a vehicle, you could easily follow the locals when a pod is sighted. Poʻipū Beach on the South Shore is one of the successful spots, but there are a bunch of small beaches that are rarely visited where you could set up camp and enjoy the experience in solitude. Panoramic vistas like Kīlauea Lighthouse and the Nāpali Coast’s Kalalau Trail on the North Shore are also worth a try, as is the viewing point on the East Side and the Kapaʻa Overlook between Kapaʻa Town and Keālia Beach.

Matador Network spoke to one of the island’s leading boat tour providers, Kauai Zodiac Tourz. The company runs South Side Whale Watching Tours from Poʻipū. They take groups of passengers over five years old up to 30 miles along Kauaʻi’s southern shores. They are the only company running from Poʻipū, providing a unique way to experience this coastline. Kauai Zodiac Tourz shares, “Be prepared for an adventure,” adding that this is not a “leisurely cruise.” If your dates don’t line up with availability, look to the sister company Kauai Sea Riders and the West Side Wonders tour, which departs from Kekaha.

The best places for whale watching in Kauaʻi:

  • Kalalau Trail
  • Kapaʻa Overlook
  • Keālia Beach
  • Kīlauea Lighthouse
  • Poʻipū Beach
  • Princeville Overlook
  • Sealodge Beach

Traveling to Hawai’i? Check out Matador’s guides to the best places to stay on each island:

Whale watching in Hawai’i Island

Action packed humpback whale breaching near and in front of a whale watching boat in Hawaii

Photo: Manuel Balesteri/Shutterstock

On Hawai’i Island, the Kohala Coast has multiple places that almost promise whale sightings during the season. The waters off Kona and Waikoloa are particularly favorable with humpbacks that splash near the shoreline. Finding an elevated spot will give you a better outlook. Head to Hilo Bay on the East Side and The Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site near Kawaihae Harbor for a great vantage point and sweeping coastal views.

Another benefit of a boat tour is the opportunity to see other marine life such as dolphins, turtles, and whale sharks in their natural habitat. Hawai’i Island tours sail along the Kona and Kohala coast. However, if you’re staying in or near Hilo harbor there are also a handful of operators running from that side of the island. Hawaiian Adventures Kona pride themselves on their over 25 years of experience running wildlife tours. They actually run year-round as the waters of Big Island Hawai’i is home to 12 species of whales (namely pilot whales, sperm whales, whale sharks, beaked whales, false killer whales, and melon-headed whales) that can be seen outside of the narrow winter hampback season. Advanced booking is recommended and gifts you with a $30 discount. Between December and March, there are three tours departing at 7:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 3:30 PM which last around 2.5 — 3 hours. Hawaiian Adventures Kona also run private tours for up to six guests. For a more luxurious group cruise, consider Alii Ocean Tours. Intimate groups depart from Honokohau Harbor on the 38-foot Thresher, “Hoku Elima.” The crew has years of experience and offer guests the opportunity to listen to whale song via the underwater hydrophone system. If you’re a little more adventurous and would prefer a exhilarating and fun ride down the coast, Captain Zodiac run whale watching tours on rafting vessels. Zodiac’s rafts move at a quick pace and offer a more intimate experience on the water with smaller groups of 16 passengers.

The best places for whale watching in Hawai’i Island:

  • Hilo Bay
  • Kapa’a Beach Park
  • Lapakahi State Historical Park
  • The Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site

Whale watching in Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi

Humpback Whale breaches in spectacular fashion in Lahaina Roads, Hawaii. Humpback Whales winter in Hawaii and give birth in the shallow waters between Maui and Molokai.

Photo: Charles Bergman/Shutterstock

As mentioned, the channels running between Lānaʻi, Maui, and Molokaʻi provide some of the best conditions for humpback whales in Hawai’i.

On Molokaʻi, keep an eye out from the beaches along the South Shore, specifically from One Aliʻi Beach to Kūmimi Beach. Molokai Fish and Dive run tours from Kaunakakai on their 31-foot twin-hull Power Cat and 38-foot Delta.

If you are staying on Lānaʻi, you’ll be spoilt for choice for shore-based viewing. Puʻupehe is recommended for being one of the better places, and you can hop on the Expeditions ferry at Mānele Harbor and scan the ocean as you sail to Maui.

The best places for whale watching in Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi:

  • Beaches on the South Shore, Molokaʻi
  • Kūmimi Beach, Molokaʻi
  • One Aliʻi Beach, Molokaʻi
  • Puʻupehe, Lānaʻi

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