Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary State Office

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary: Globally Significant Protected Whale Hotspot
Local Expert's Rating:
4.5 / 5
The Bottom Line:

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary protects 1,400 square miles of some of the most important habitat for humpback whales in the world. Set within the waters of the main Hawaiian Islands, the sanctuary hosts a significant proportion of the North Pacific humpback population during winter, when the whales breed and calve here. Along with whalewatching and other ocean-based recreation, the sanctuary includes a fine visitor center on Maui well worth checking out.

- The HawaiianIslands.com Local Expert Team

Each winter, humpback whales journey from summer feeding grounds off Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands. Here, they mate, give birth, and rear their calves in the coastal waters of this most remote major archipelago in the world. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary protects this critical wintering zone, one of the all-around global hotspots for this mighty baleen whale (known in Native Hawaiian as kohola).

The sanctuary covers about 1,400 square miles within the main (or “high”) Hawaiian Islands. That extent is split between five separate units in the fairly shallow (mostly less than 600 feet deep) coastal waters along and in between islands, preferred humpback breeding and calving habitat. Those units include offshore the northern coast of Kaui, the northern and southeastern coasts of Oahu, and the northwestern coast of the Big Island. 

But the largest single unit, set within the heart of the main Hawaiian Islands, lies within the Maui Nui complex. This—the greatest single Hawaiian humpback wintering area—includes Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and the submerged rise of the Penguin Bank west of Molokai. Off Maui specifically, the sanctuary covers the coastal section along essentially the island’s entire western coast, right off top West and South Maui beaches.

Humpbacks are midsized to large baleen whales, with females (cows) reaching more than 50 feet in length. They’re among the most distinctive-looking of baleen species, given their fabulously long flippers, which may be close to a third as long as the whale’s body. And they’re certainly the most acrobatic of the great whales, well known for their exuberant leaps (breaches) as well as flipper and tail slaps. 

More than half of the entire North Pacific humpback-whale population winters in Hawaii. Here, bulls compete for the right to mate, while cows give birth and nurse calves. With such a major stock of whales doing their thing here, a lot of important research gets done in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. That includes assessing year-to-year population trends, tracking whale movements, and studying the eerie songs bull humpbacks sing.

The sanctuary’s extensive and productive waters aren’t only a habitat for humpback whales, though they’re the primary reason this protected area was established. Indeed, more than 20 other cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are found here, including spinner, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins. Sea turtles are also abundant, especially greens and hawksbills, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals also forage here. Then there’s a dizzying lineup of fish, including such heavyweights as blue marlin and tiger sharks.

Given wintering humpbacks hang out pretty close to the coastline, opportunities for shore-based whale watching from November through April are rich in Hawaii. Whale-watching cruises are also understandably popular. And Maui’s just about the best island for seeing humpbacks.

Whalewatching is a prime activity here, but there are all sorts of other aquatic recreation within the National Marine Sanctuary, given it includes hugely popular beachfronts, surf breaks, and dive sites. (Molokini Crater off Maui, for example, one of the best-known snorkeling and diving destinations in Hawaii, is within the sanctuary.)

It’s also definitely worth checking out the sanctuary’s main visitor center in Kihei, Maui. There are awesome educational exhibits within, great views offshore to Kahoolawe and Lanai, and, right out front, among South Maui’s most significant historic Native Hawaiian fishponds. (The sanctuary also maintains an ocean discovery center on Kauai.)

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is both a globally significant protected zone for whales and an extremely popular place for two-legged types to get out on (and under) the water.

Insider Tip:
Even as just a vacationer on Maui (or elsewhere in Hawaii), there are numerous opportunities to volunteer with the whale science and conservation underway in the sanctuary. That includes annual shore-based humpback monitoring via the Sanctuary Ocean Count and (on Maui) the Great Whale Count.