Breaching humpback whale on Hawaii

Whale Watching on the Big Island

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Hawaii is a great place to go whale watching during in the period between December and May, and the Big Island is one of the most popular Hawaiian Islands for Whale watching together with Maui and Kauai.

A Humpback breaches near the Big Island, Hawaii
A Humpback breaches near the Big Island, Hawaii. Photo Credits: D’Arcy Norman on Flickr.

The immense (on average 45 ft!) humpback whales (na kohola) visit Hawaii every year from November until early May, and during this time there are many ways to sea and hear these majestic animals. You can listen to the whales under water, spot them from the shore, and look them up in their natural habitat – the ocean. You can find a short guide for each of these 3 activities if you scroll down.

Did you know that a whale is more closely related to a giraffe than to a fish? Update your humpback whale trivia and get ready for whale watching with our humpback whale 101 guide and 6 great tips for whale watching

Humpback whales are an endangered species that were brought to the brink of extinction by whale hunters in the last century. Now, thanks to international protection, their numbers are increasing to a current total global population of 30 to 40 thousand humpback whales. Of these, roughly 10 to 12 thousand visit the Island of Hawaii during the winter. And did you know that, for the native Hawaiians, the whale is a representation of the Hawaiian god Kanaloa – the god of animals in the ocean?

Breaching humpback whale on Hawaii
A Humpback Whale breaches off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii. Photo Credits: NOAA’s National Ocean Service on Flickr. See also the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and NOAA’s National Ocean Service. (Original source: NOS Image Gallery)

Whale Season on Hawaii

Humpback whale season on the Big Island (and all other Hawaiian islands) is between November and Early May. If you visit Hawaii during these months, you have several options to see and hear the whales. You can visit them up-close with a boat, watch them from the shore, and even hear the humpback whales sing if you are lucky.

Why are the whales in Hawaii?

Humpback whales don’t spend their winter on Hawaii for the same reason as humans do. They are a migratory species which means that they migrate every year between the cool waters close to the poles to (sub)tropical waters. The North pacific (Hawaiian) whales swim an average of 6000 miles a year, but migrations of 16.000 miles  a year have been documented! This makes Humpback Whales one of the best traveled mammals in the world.

Humpback Whales spend their summer feeding and building up fat reserves in the cool higher latitude waters and then spend the winter in the tropical waters to engage in mating and calving. Because there is very little food for the whales in (sub)tropical oceans they live off their fat reserves during their Hawaiian summer (they fast). The big advantage of such food poor waters is that there are not many large predators around that can prey on the young humpback whale calves.

Where are the whales in Hawaii?

If you are on the Big Island, this means that you will have most chances of seeing whales in the north Kona, and north and south Kohala districts.  If you are really passionate about seeing many whales, you can think about camping in Waipi’o or Pololu valley, of organizing a sunset picnic in Holoholokai Beach Park. Be advised that to go camping you need to request a camping permit.

Below you can see the results of an aerial survey for whales performed between 1993 and 2003. This map shows where you can best see whales on Hawaii. The red zones are the best spots to see whales, the yellow zones also have whale sightings but relatively less. The aerial survey data was collected by Dr. Joe Mobley from UH during 1993 – 2003 and the density surface was developed by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Humpback whales sightings on Hawaii
This map shows where you can best see whales on Hawaii. The red zones are the best spots to see whales, the yellow zones also have whale sightings but relatively less

Hear Humpback Whales sing yourself:

Every year the whales compose a new song, and all humpback whales around the world sing that same “hit song”

Did you know that you can hear the whales sing their famous and ever-changing songs? Every year the whales compose a new song, and all humpback whales around the world sing that same “hit song”! Because these songs carry far under water you can hear them even if they are sung some miles out into the ocean. If you are swimming and are lucky enough to see whales out in the ocean, do the following:

While swimming

  1. Swim a little bit past the surf (careful, only do this when you are together with someone else, when the currents are low, and when you are a confident swimmer)
  2. Take a deep breath and swim to the bottom, dig your hands in the sand.
  3. Clear your ears (close your nose with your fingers and try to blow air out of your nose. You should hear your ears “pop”)
  4. Listen and hear the whales sing!!

While snorkeling

Snorkeling makes listening to the whale song much easier. Of course, there still have to be whales within a couple of miles of your snorkeling spot. If this is the case (for example, if you see their white water spout), do the following:

  1. Find a spot that is more than 5 ft deep and away from the surf. You preferably want deeper water or a sandy ocean floor
  2. Take a deep breath of air and dive down. You will be deep enough when you are on a depth where you can keep yourself under water with your feet without breaking the surface
  3. Clear your ears (close your nose with your fingers and try to blow air out of your nose. You should hear your ears “pop”)
  4. Listen and hear the whales sing!!
Whale tail slap
A Humpback Whale tail near the Big Island, Hawaii. Photo Credits: Erik Charlton on Flickr

Find the whales in the ocean

One of the most spectacular ways to see the wales is to go on a boat trip that will track the wales and visit them up and close! Not only will you see the whales very close, but there is also the possibility to see dolphins, turtles, and if you are lucky even a whale shark!

Several companies offer these tours. The boats often have a bar-on-board and prfessional guides, which makes these several-hour outings a real treat. Make sure to bring your camera (and to keep a tight grip on it when taking photo’s!), and read our 6 great whale watching tips to prepare yourself as good as possible.

The availability of these tours depends on the presence of the whales, so if you are interested you best bet is to enter one of the many local shops offering tours and cruises and inquire for their special discounts. Alternatively, Google is your friend.

Watch the whales from the shore

If you are driving past the north Kona, Kohala, north Kohala or Hilo coast and keep your eyes (don’t do this if you are driving the car!) on the ocean in the winter months, chances are that you will see many whales. The first thing that will attract your attention is a big spout of water. If you keep your eyes on this spot you might get more action. Just like humans, whales love playing around in the water, so prepare yourself for some tail-slapping on the water, and if you are very lucky you will see a humpback whale jumping out of the water!

Have a look at our humpback whale 101 for an identification chart of all possible humpback whale acrobatics such as the breach, the tail slap, the fluke up dive or the head lunge.