It’s no exaggeration to say that Maui offers some of the finest whale-watching anywhere in the world.
During the winter months, the Valley Isle provides front-row seats to the spectacle of Hawaii’s famous humpback whales, which migrate to relatively shallow coastal waters here every year as part of a far-traveling lifeway. Absolutely superlative viewing opportunities await vacationers in Maui during this time of year!
What Kinds of Whales Can You See in Maui?
By far the best-known and most commonly sighted whale in Maui’s waters is the aforementioned humpback. Humpback whales are baleen whales: They sieve water through plates of baleen, made from keratin (like your fingernails), to feed on plankton, krill, and small fish. Within the baleen-whale complex, humpbacks are the sole member of their genus within a family known as the rorquals, which also include such species as the blue whale (largest of all whales—indeed, largest of all animals!), the sei whale, and the fin whale.
Humpback whales, which typically grow to about 45 to 50 feet, are easily recognized by their huge pectoral flippers and their contrasting coloration of a blackish top and a white underside. While not as speedy as some other rorquals, they’re famed for their acrobatics, frequently breaching bodily out of the water and slapping the surface with their flippers or tail flukes.
Hawaii’s humpbacks belong to the North Pacific population, more than half of which migrates annually to the Hawaiian Islands from wintering grounds off Alaska and British Columbia to breed and calve in coastal waters. We’re talking some 12,000 humpbacks calling Hawaii seasonal home!
Humpbacks are definitely the stars of the show, but you’ve also got the chance to see a number of other whale species, particularly a number of smaller-toothed whales collectively (and misleadingly) known as “blackfish.” These include the main Hawaiian Islands’ endangered population of some 150 to 200 false killer whales, named for their skeletal resemblance to the larger orca (or killer whale). These big, dark-colored dolphins range between about 15 and 20 feet long and often form large pods.
The typically slightly larger short-finned pilot whale is another potential sight off Maui, but this cetacean is more common in deeper waters off Hawaii, and thus only occasionally glimpsed by shore- and boat-based whale-watchers. It’s roughly similar-looking to the false killer whale, but the pilot whale has a blunter, more bulbous head than the false killer.
A few other kinds of “blackfish” whales, namely the small melon-headed whales and the pygmy killer whales, periodically make cameos as well.
We ought to note that all of these toothed whales belong to the cetacean family of oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae if you want to be technical about it), and it’s pretty darn arbitrary how some species within this family bear the common name “whale” and some the name “dolphin.” Swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, and boaters off Maui not uncommonly see spinner, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins.
Finally, while the humpback is easily the most frequently seen, glimpses of other baleen whales—from blue whales to North Pacific right whales—do rarely occur in Maui’s waters.
Maui’s Whale-watching Season
While you’ve got the opportunity to see a whale of one kind or another any time of year off Maui, the main whale-watching season is defined based on the presence of wintering humpback whales, mainly found between November and May. Within that window, peak whale-watching generally runs between January and March.
Where & How to See Whales in Maui
North Pacific humpbacks range widely through the main Hawaiian Islands during the winter breeding and calving season, and five sections of coastal inter-island waters help compose the roughly 1,400-square-mile Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
The single biggest and most whale-thronged unit, though, is the Maui Nui complex between Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and the submerged Penguin Bank. Maui, and particularly its western and southern coasts, is the absolute epicenter for Hawaiian whale-watching and one of the best places on Earth, bar none, to see humpbacks.
There are numerous coastal vantages in Maui that offer excellent opportunities to spot spouting, spy-hopping, and breaching humpbacks from the shore.
Some examples of popular shore-based whale-watching perches on the island include:
- McGregor Point Lookout (usually staffed daily during peak whale-watching season by a naturalist with the Pacific Whale Foundation)
- The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary office in Kihei
- Kaanapali Beach
- Wailea Oceanside Pathway
Meanwhile, there are a whole host of companies offering whale-watching cruises in Maui during humpback season, with Lahaina and Maalaea harbors being major hubs for departures. Taking a boat tour is a thrilling way to view Hawaiian humpbacks, with cruise operators (like anyone captaining a vessel) required to abide by federal rules and regulations, including maintaining a 100-yard distance from whales.
Among your options for Maui whale-watching tours is PacWhale Eco-Adventures, the fee-based arm of the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation that has conducted research on and advocacy for whales since 1980. Run out of Maalaea and Lahaina harbors, the Pacific Whale Foundation’s whale-watching cruises all feature the onboard expertise of a highly trained Certified Marine Naturalist.
Other good choices for Maui whale-watching tours with onboard naturalists include Ultimate Whale Watch & Snorkel and Blue Water Maui Charters out of Lahaina Harbor and Aloha Blue Charters out of Maalaea Harbor.