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Hawaii Travel: Winter whale watching adventures in Maui


Jan 09, 2023


East Bay Times

One of the greatest nature shows on Earth comes to Maui each winter. Thousands of giant humpback whales –called kohola in native Hawaiian — congregate in the shallow, warm water channels between Maui, Molokai, Kaho’lawe and Lanai after migrating thousands of miles from food-rich waters off Alaska and other regions of the north Pacific. Here in Hawaii, they breed, give birth and nurse calves in an oceanic ritual that’s as old as time.

At the height of the season, January through March, there are so many whales in Maui’s waters, the locals wryly call it “whale soup” — and it’s easy to take it all in.

Hawaiians consider humpbacks as kama’aina or native-born. They are revered in Polynesian culture and found in ancient petroglyphs and native Hawaiian creation stories. In Hawaiian culture, kohola signify strength, power and unity, and remind us of the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world. They are magical to watch as they socialize, sing and play just offshore.

It was early December — generally considered the start of Maui’s “whale season” — and I was bobbing about in the gentle surf of Polo Beach, which fronts Wailea’s Fairmont Kea Lani resort, where I had sequestered for a few days in an ocean-facing Kilohana suite.

Between waves, I scanned the horizon, hoping to see whales. After just a few minutes, I spotted a misty blow — a whale exhale — followed moments later by a tail fluke breaking the ocean surface with a graceful swoop and then the flap of a dark pectoral fin. I could hardly resist shouting “whale!” to the other swimmers around me, some of whom were focused on a large sea turtle swimming a few feet from us. My Wailea whale show ended with a powerful breach, an arching leap ending with a massive splash. Maui’s whale season was on.
There are numerous ways to whale watch on Maui. The most popular are by boat excursion and guided kayak tour. But landlubbers can whale watch from Maui’s south and west shore beaches and coastal trails. And for a real treat, you can book a luxurious oceanfront resort room, such the Westin Maui’s newly remodeled Hokupa’a wing, Sheraton Maui’s Moana wing, and the Fairmont Kea Lani’s Kilohana suites and villas. The lanais of these rooms provide front row seating to this remarkable nature show and are, of course, the perfect spots to sip a tropical drink and toast to mammalian living at its finest — for homo sapiens on vacation and Megaptera novaeangliae (humpback whales) on a mission alike.

Take to the water

Whale watching outfitters abound in Maui. A few favorites are listed below, but be sure to pick a reputable company for a memorable journey on the water. Your choices will include small group inflatable boats, sailing catamarans, guided double sit-on-top kayaks and large excursion boats. Some outfitters include snorkel stops and will  lower microphones into the water so you can hear whale songs, which travel long distances. (Here’s a bit of whale trivia: Whale songs travel faster underwater than through the air, and only male whales sing.)

PacWhale EcoAdventures in Lahaina and Ma’alaea offers a wide variety of boat tours that support the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation, a research, education and conservation enterprise. My favorite tour is a two-hour morning tour ($70 and up) with PacWhale Eco-Adventures’ certified marine naturalists out of Lahaina Harbor. In addition to gaining a better understanding about these giants of the sea, you get to see how researchers gather data. Continental breakfast is included. Children, ages 4 and under, are not allowed. Find more details at https://www.pacificwhale.org/cruises.
Lahaina’s Ultimate Whale Watch inflatable boat excursions, which specialize in small group tours (26 or less), are the best way to get photos of whales. Tours ($65 and up) are guided by a marine naturalist. (Tip: You experience more ocean motion on small boats than on larger vessels. If you’re prone to the punies, take non-drowsy motion sickness pills about an hour before the tour.) Find details at www.ultimatewhalewatch.com.

Meanwhile, Hawaiian Paddle Sports and Maui Kayak Adventures, which depart from South and West Maui, aretwo of Maui’s top paddling outfitters, offering small group, guided kayak tours ($109 per person) to see the whales from a stunning perspective and a safe distance — an adventurous and once-in-a lifetime experience. Check out the details and book a seat at www.hawaiianpaddlesports.com and https://mauikayakadventures.com/,

Seeing whales via a helicopter tour ($389 and up) costs considerably more than water-based excursions, of course, but you get a thrilling ride and unique aerial views of Maui’s humpback whales. Top choices include Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (www.bluehawaiian.com) and Air Maui Helicopter Tours (www.airmaui.com).

Spot whales from shore

For no-cost, beach-based whale watching, try the Kamaole II and III beach parks in Kihei, the Wailea-area beaches in South Maui and the Kapalua coastal trail in West Maui. A popular roadside viewpoint to watch whales is Papawai Point on the coastal road between Kahului and Lahaina.

Go deep into marine education

More than 20 species of whales and dolphins can be found in Hawaiian waters but the ones you’re likeliest to see are humpbacks and spinner dolphins. Fortunately, Maui has a number of excellent ocean education centers, each with an abundance of information and displays on Hawaii’s more elusive cetaceans.

The Maui Ocean Center/Aquarium of Hawaii in Ma’alaea offers an amazing 3-D film experience in a spherical theater. There are detailed displays on whale migration and behavior and mounted binoculars for scanning the sea, too. Learn more at www.mauioceancenter.com.

In north Kihei, the NOAA Kihei Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary offers an abundance of humpback whale information and free childrens activities. Learn more about the visitor center in Kihei and other things to do at https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/.

And in the heart of Ka’anapali, the new, 5,000-square-foot Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center in the Whalers Village shopping center has more than 30 exhibits focused on native marine life, the region’s whaling era and ocean conservation. Plan your visit at www.kaanapaliresort.com/whalers-village-museum.

Whale watch from your lanai

Prefer to get your cetacean appreciation in from the most comfortable spot possible — on a chaise or in an infinity pool, mai tai in hand?

In South Maui, the Wailea Beach Resort fronts the ʻAlalakeiki Channel, which separates Kahoʻolawe and Maui. Nestled between two of the island’s best beaches, the resort’s newly launched Sundeck Collection offers ground-level rooms with amazing ocean views from their 150 square-foot lanais, a seamless indoor/outdoor experience that’s ideal for casual whale watching. It’s also dreamy to watch whales from the lip of their adults-only Maluhia infinity pool too. Details: Wailea Beach Resort, 3700 Wailea Alanui Drive in Wailea; https://www.marriott.com.

Fairmont Kea Lani’s Kilohana suites offer wide, curving lanais with stunning views of Polo Beach and the Pacific. There’s no better perch in Wailea than here to watch whales and relax with mai tais and pupus with a view. Details: Fairmont Kea Lani, 4100 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea-Makena; fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui

In West Maui, the Westin Maui Resort & Spa’s Hokupa’a tower is a recently remodeled gem and offers roomy suites with panoramic ocean views. The infinity pool in The Lanai club level is perfect for drinking and whale watching too. Details: Westin Maui Resort & Spa at Ka’anapali, 2365 Ka’anapali Parkway in Lahaina; westinmaui.com.

Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa’s Moana Wing is located in the original part of the resort, dramatically perched on Pu’u Keka’a (Black Rock). These are the closest rooms to the ocean in Ka’anapali and offer superb perches for whale watching. Details: Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, 2605 Ka’anapali Parkway, Lahaina; sheratonmaui.com.

The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel is a longtime Ka’anapali resort hotel with an authentic Hawaiian vibe, newly remodeled rooms and a fabulous new restaurant, HuiHui. They offer some of the best value for premium rooms in the Ka’anapali resort. Ask for an ocean-facing premium room. Details: Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, 2525Ka’anapali Parkway in Lahaina; kbhmaui.com.

Royal Lahaina Resort is another old-school Ka’anapali hotel that features newly remodeled rooms. Ask for a remodeled room or suite overlooking the ocean in the Lahaina Kai Tower for best views. Details: Royal Lahaina Resort & Bungalows, 2780 Kekaa Drive in Lahaina; royallahaina.com.

Or head for another island

While not quite as crowded as Maui’s offshore whale scene, Hawaii’s other islands — especially Kauai — offer whale watching opportunities in the winter months, too. On a recent visit to Kauai, I stayed in an oceanfront room at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, where I spotted whales from my lanai as well as from Shipwreck Beach frontingthe resort.

Here are a few suggestions for places for whale watching resorts on the Garden Island:Grand Hyatt Kauai, 1571 Poipu Road in Koloa, hyatt.comWhalers Cove Resort, 2640 Puuholo Road in Koloa, whalerscoveresort.comSheraton Kauai Resort, 2440 Hoonani Road in Koloa, marriott.com