Unlike most beach destinations, summer is not necessarily the best season to go to Hawaii. On colder months, you could visit Maui and witness one of nature’s incredible activities, the annual migration of humpback whales from cool Alaskan waters to the warm Hawaiian sea. You could see them up close and in action! Maybe a spout from afar or a breach. Awesome, right?! It’s overwhelming, actually, and something that you should try at least once. For an amazing experience, here are 10 things you need to know before whale watching in Maui.
1. Join a whale watching tour
If you’re lucky, you could catch a glimpse from your binoculars. Sure, you might be able to see it from land but if you’re determined to see a humpback whale up close and experience that unique, overwhelming encounter, you should join a whale watching tour!
Pacific Whale Foundation
With several whale watching tours to choose from in Maui (check the Lahaina Harbour), we joined the Whalewatch Sail Deluxe, one of Pacific Whale Foundation’s whalewatch ecotours. It was a 3-hour tour on a luxurious but eco-friendly catamaran! Our group was around 65 guests but there were enough seats for everyone. You could stay at the upper deck and be one of the first ones to spot a whale or you could chill at the lower deck and wait until they announce a whale spotting. Being at the upper deck is more fun but prepare for strong winds and some splashes!
One of the advantages of joining Pacific Whale Foundation’s tour is their team of certified Marine Naturalists. Even though there were moments with no whales in sight, we enjoyed the fun facts shared by the Pacific Whale Foundation team.
For more details about Pacific Whale Foundation, click here.
2. Whale watching is heavily dependent on weather conditions and whale activity
Since whale watching depends on these two environmental factors, there is a chance that you might not see them up close or encounter a certain type of whale behavior like jumping high out of the water. With that said, you should go to the tour without any expectation of what you will see and just enjoy every moment of it!
It’s better to join a whale watching tour that guarantees a whale sighting. In the slightest chance that you will not be able to see any whales on your trip, there are tours that provide a free pass for another whale watching tour.
3. Every whale watching trip is different
Weather conditions and whale activities vary in each trip so every whale watching experience is different.
Whalewatch Sail Deluxe tour
The Whalewatch Sail Deluxe tour sounded like we would be relaxing and sailing through the calm sea while we wait for the whales to appear. It’s the complete opposite! Our trip with Pacific Whale Foundation was an adventure! Even their team admitted that it was an unusual trip, more like extreme whale watching. Strong winds and waves kept on rocking the catamaran. As we were sailing to the direction of the whale, we had to sit down and cling on to the rails to prevent any accident. It was really difficult to take photos and videos.
Even though it wasn’t the relaxing boat ride we expected, the whales seemed to enjoy the weather and the sea because we saw a lot of whale activities! At first, we only saw some spouts. These guided the direction we were heading to. The excitement on the boat increased when the whales displayed different behaviors. Everybody’s favorite was the breach. We were very lucky to see frequent jumps from the whales. What caught us by surprise was when two whales made a double breach. It was spectacular!
Another tour, different company
We had so much fun with the Pacific Whale Foundation tour that we wanted to do it again. We wanted to try a different type of tour, one with a smaller boat and group. This time, the sun was out and the wind and the sea were calm. We had high hopes to get excellent shots of the whales and their activities! Unfortunately, despite having a good weather, we weren’t able to see as much whale activity as we did on our first tour. There were some spouts and fin slapping but we didn’t see any full breach.
We were told that the humpback whales migrate to Hawaiian oceans for mating and birthing purposes. There were many instances where the whales were slapping their fins and tails against the water, calling for attention. We also encountered three whales swimming side by side. We were told by the guides that these were probably two males competing over a female.
On both trips, we listened to the beautiful whale song. Engines were turned off as the underwater hydrophone focused on the whale song.
Our Whalewatch Sail Deluxe trip included unlimited appetizers, lunch, and drinks.
4. Always be on the lookout for whale activities
I noticed that teamwork is important in whale watching. When there’s a whale activity from the opposite direction, the only way for you and for the captain to know is from the excited cries of other guests. We were taught to shout the direction if ever we spot a whale activity. This helped the team and the captain navigate to the right direction of the whales. So, be a good mate and always be on the lookout for whale activities! 🙂
5. Don’t just pick any whale watching tour
As I have already mentioned, there are many whale watching tours in Maui, particularly at Lahaina Harbour. Based on our experience with Pacific Whale Foundation, I recommend joining them. Even though we were in a larger group, the team created an entertaining atmosphere and a better whale watching experience. Their enthusiasm and passion for the whales were contagious. Even as we were returning from our first tour, the team was still on the lookout for more whale activities. They also offer other tours if you prefer a smaller group.
Our other whale watching tour is also one of those at Lahaina Harbour. I noticed that even though we were in a smaller group, we had less interaction than the first tour. Having experienced the differences between these tours, it’s better if you read reviews from other guests before deciding.
6. Bring a windbreaker or water-resistant jacket and a set of extra clothes
The jacket will protect you from the wind and water. The set of extra clothes is for emergency in case you get soaked!
Before we set out to the sea, the team advised us that the upper deck usually gets some splashes at the start. That was not the case for our trip because of the strong winds and waves. Those of us at the upper deck got drenched every time a big wave crashed against the boat. There were moments when I was reminded of the days we went white water rafting. It was THAT intense and exhilarating! The only downside was that we got completely soaked, as if we swam with our clothes on. That and we had to endure the cold until the trip ended.
If you ask me, I would still prefer this “extreme” whale watching. I just need to be fully equipped next time with my windbreaker/water-resistant jacket and a set of extra clothes!
7. Protect your camera/phone
It gets turbulent when the boat is pursuing the direction of the whale. We all want to get a great shot of the whale but don’t risk dropping your camera or phone! It’s good to use a wrist or neck strap for your gadgets.
If you’re willing to get wet during whale watching, you should put your camera/phone in a waterproof case even if they are water-resistant. It’s difficult to completely remove saltwater from these gadgets.
There’s another option in case you still don’t want to risk damaging or losing your camera/phone, you could rent a camera from the tour company! There are several tour companies that provide camera rentals.
8. Wear plenty of sunscreen
Whale watching tours are usually 2-3 hours under the sun.
9. January to March are good months to go whale watching in Maui
When choosing the dates to go whale watching in Maui, schedule it around January to March. The prices might be higher during these months because it is the peak season in Hawaii, but you have the best chance of seeing a lot of whales. The best month to watch whales is in February.
10. Support ecotourism!
Don’t you agree that the least we can do for the whales is to support ecotourism? If you want to join a whale watching tour, please choose one that has no- or low-impact to the environment. Fortunately, there are already some ecotours for whale watching such as those being offered by Pacific Whale Foundation. As a non-profit organization, it dedicates all of its profits to research, education and conservation programs.
If you feel that you want to contribute more, click here to find out how.
Disclaimer: This post is written in partnership with Pacific Whale Foundation. As always, all opinions on Business Traveler’s Wife are my own.
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Looking for more activities in Maui? Check my posts on our kayak AND snorkel tour experience in Olowalu Turtle Garden, Maui guided tour and the evening we spent in a traditional luau! 🙂
13 Replies to “10 Things to Know Before You Go Whale Watching in Maui”
Thank you for these helpful tips. I wouldn’t think to plan a trip to Hawaii in the winter, but it’s good to know it’s the best time to see the whales! And yes to keeping your camera gear safe from salt water. I wonder how many phones get dropped into the ocean on these types of excursions?
What a dream come true! As a big fan of marine life I would rather swim with the whales but I would aswell be very excited to see them from distance! So beautiful creature! Really helpful tips and it’s good to know that one should choose a tour that garantie a return if one didnt spot a whale at the first try!
Pacific Whale Foundation sounds like an excellent tour to spot some whales. I’ve been following your Instagram gallery and love every one of your whale posts! It’s also good to know that it’s better to visit Hawaii in months other than summer; the plane tickets are cheaper during off-season!
This looks like it was an awesome trip! I live in Seattle & have been out twice to try and find orcas in their natural habitat. One day we had no luck so we were given a voucher to return- and on the second try we saw many whales and even a baby orca. We also have gray whale watching season which is coming up! Finding a company who truly cares about the wellbeing of the ocean and the animals makes all the difference!!!
Good thing you had a free pass! Seeing those whales and baby orca is a great redemption of your first day. 🙂 And yes, the tour company makes a huge difference to the experience!
We are going to Hawaii next week and I”m so excited! I really want to go on a whale watching tour. These tips were awesome!
Hi Susannah, I’m really excited for you! You’re going on February which is the best month to see the whales! Thanks for dropping by. I’m happy you found these tips awesome! 🙂
Great guide! I was thinking about whale watching because I know this is the right season. I don’t have any plans to go to Hawaii soon, but you can see whales in Mexico as well, so I’ll put most of your tips at use. Thanks for the article!
Wow! This looks like an incredible trip! Watching playful whales in their natural habitat with scenic vistas around is such a beautiful experience. I agree with you on choosing the eco friendly tour as that’s the least we can do for these lovely creatures. Love your amazing pictures!
I love your last point of practicing ecotourism, that’s really important! In the past couple of years I’ve become more conscious about ecotourism and how important is on local economies and environment. Looks like you saw quite a bit of whale activity on your tour, that’s great. I haven’t been as lucky yet, ha! Great post and pictures!
What an experience this must’ve been! I would’ve LOVE to hearf the whales song. Your pictures came out great snd looks like you had a blast! A must-do on my Hawai bucket list:)
You’re absolutely right about the whale visibility being dependent on many factors including the weather and also the time of day! I remember going for one in Canada and we were in the sea for about 2 hours and did not see a single whale and I was so disappointed because the cruise before ours had seen quite the variety! I believe it was because the time we went at was late evening/ sunset hours and later we found out that the probability of seeing whales at that time is considerably lower. And yes, to be protected with sunscreen under the scorching Maui sun is good advise too. Also, to carry a light jacket because sometimes it can get cold and breezy in the middle of the ocean!
I recently did a whale watching marine safari in Merissa in Sri Lanka and this post brought back lovely memories from it. You have given some very handy tips. Also the last part about ecotourism was well said and it must be remembered by travelers.