I’ve been to Hawaii a few times in the past—twice to Oahu, twice to the Big Island—but Maui was forever the holy grail for me. It’s got beaches, a volcano, a food scene, an upcountry—what’s not to love? So when we decided where to spend my 40th birthday, the Valley Isle was a no-brainer. Even better? My birthday fell during whale season in Maui.
Where are all the whales in Maui?
Whale watching season in Maui runs from December to April each year. The North Pacific population of humpback whales migrate to Japan, Hawaii, and Mexico for mating and birthing, and during these winter months, roughly 14,000 humpback whales migrate to Maui for breeding.
Hawaii receives the highest number of whales in winter, and Maui County (Maui Nui Basin) boasts the highest concentration of whales within Hawaii. February, when we were there, is the peak of whale season, and the babies are out learning the ropes. It’s the cutest thing ever to watch them practicing tail slaps and mimicking their mothers’ moves.
Since tropical waters have far less food for them, the humpback whales travel back to the Northern Pacific Ocean in summer months where their feeding grounds—of krill, plankton and small fish—are in British Columbia, Alaska and eastern Russia.
Approaching whales closer than 100 yards by boat or swimming or snorkeling is illegal. Please respect the wildlife and keep at a safe distance.
5 ways to see whales in Hawaii
There are obviously countless activities you can do to experience whale season in Maui, but here were our personal favorite ways to see whales up close and personal.
Is there anything more jaw-dropping than being up close and personal to the whales with them breaching and flipping all around you? SVV’s former roommate Joe has long worked for NOAA and told us taking a zodiac whale-watching tour was the way to go. Not one to argue with a marine biologist, we booked this tour.
It was an overcast, rainy day when we left from Lahaina Harbor, but you know what? Whales don’t care. They’re still out there doing their thing. Just be sure you bring a rain jacket, hat, any waterproof covers to protect your gear like cameras and seasick meds if you need them. (I was wearing a Scopolamine patch.)
During our two-hour tour, we saw at least two dozen whales, usually a mom with a baby in tow. It was pure magic, and our time with the whales would only get even more magical as the week progressed.
We took a helicopter flight in from Maui over to Molokai, and the ride was one of the high points of our vacation, literally and figuratively. If you’re doing a doors-off tour, you’ll be hanging out right over the ocean and be able to spy any spouts as you fly over.
We stayed at the Fairmont Kea Lani, which offers an hour of complimentary equipment rentals for fins, masks and snorkels. We took advantage of this every day we were there, and no only did we see turtles galore, but we heard whales singing their sweet song!
Listen to this video with sound on, and you’ll get a sense of what it sounds like under the ocean’s surface during whale season in Maui.
Not feeling like leaving your beach perch? I don’t blame you. Lucky for you, you can sit in your beach chair and watch the whales as they play in Wailea Bay.
We broke up our trip to Maui among three parts of the island—the North Shore, Lahaina and Wailea—and while we saw whales everywhere, the highest concentration was by far in Wailea Bay right in front of the Fairmont hotel.
Of all the ways we saw whales in Maui, none hold a candle to by paddleboard. My adventure writer friend Sarah Sekula lives on island and brought her SUP over to the Fairmont to go for a paddle with me. What we planned as a little hour out and back quickly became more than three as the whales were popping and breaching, spouting and singing.
Sarah dunked her GoPro in the water while we were paddling—remember, you can’t swim within 100 yards of whales, nor chase them—and their songs are truly mesmerizing.
We had to do a lot of hard paddling out on the ocean as whales were surfacing in every direction. If you’re not as experienced as we are in paddleboarding, you may want to book a SUP tour in nearby Kihei where the guides will know exactly where to take you to see whales.
And if paddleboarding isn’t your thing, paddling by canoe or kayak are other options for seeing whales.
This was not my first time experiencing whale season in Hawaii—I’d spent 10 days on the Big Island during January very long ago—but it was by far the highest volume of whales I’ve seen in my life, and I worked on a ship at one point, too. If you get the chance to visit Maui during the prime whale months of December through April, absolutely jump on that.
Have you ever seen whales in Maui? Is this on your bucket list?