Humpback whales sightings on Hawaii

Whale Watching on the Big Island

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Whale season on the Big Island is between November and May. Humpback whales spend their winter months in the waters around the Hawaiian islands to raise their calves (children) far away from predators, giving visitors and locals alike a chance to see these majestic animals in their natural habitat.

During whale season there are many ways to see and hear these majestic animals. You can listen to the whales below the water, spot them from the shore, and try to spot them in their natural habitat: the ocean.

The Big Island is one of the most popular Hawaiian Islands for Whale watching. Other good islands to see the whales are 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.

Why are humpback whales so amazing?

The immense (on average 45 ft!) humpback whales (na kohola) are an endangered species that was 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 about 80 thousand humpback whales. Of these, roughly 12 to 18 thousand (2015 estimate, see page 104, D.3..1 and D.4) visit Hawai’i during winter.

Whales seem to love playing around in the water, just like humans! Despite their size humpback whales are surprisingly acrobatic. They show this by frequently leaping out of the water (which you can see yourself) and by slapping their tails on the water. Humpback whales are also renowned for their beautiful and haunting songs.

Humpback whales also have a strong cultural value in Hawaii. To the native Hawaiians a whale is the representation of the Hawaiian god Kanaloa – the god of animals in the ocean.

The following trailer filmed partly in the Hawaiian waters you can see an up-close look at how humpback whales communicate, sing, feed, play and take care of their young.

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

Whale Season on Hawaii (November – May)

Humpback whale season on the Big Island (and all other Hawaiian islands) is between November and Early May. The first whales start arriving in November, and their numbers steadily build up as the season goes on until they peak in the months January, February, and March. The whales leave Hawai’i again late April / early May.

Every year since 1996 volunteers count the whales at many locations throughout the Hawaiian islands for the Sanctuary Ocean Count. The results of this count are not easy to digest, but the general picture that emerges for the Big Island is the following:

  • The Kohala coast is by far the best place to see humpback whales. Sightings here are sometimes two or three times more frequent than at other locations on the island.
  • January and February are the best months the see whales at the Kohala coast. In March the total count number halves, but there seem to be slightly more sightings on the Hamakua (northeast) coast.
  • Early in the morning is the best time to see whales. The number of whale sightings on the Big Island at 0800 am is ~50% higher the amount at noon.
  • Average numbers for whale sightings fluctuate a lot! On average over all locations, between 3 and 6 whales were seen per 15-minute period in January and February. However, this average includes some sites with 0 sightings and other with as much as 15-20 whales.
The early bird sees up to 50% more #whales + 3 extra original tips for #hawaii #whalewatchingtwitter shareclick to tweet
The best months to go whale watching in Hawaii are January and February.

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!

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

Why are the whales in Hawaii?

Humpback whales don’t spend their winter in Hawaii for the same reason as humans do. The whales are a migratory species which means that they migrate every year between the cool waters close to the poles and (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 the warm and food poor waters is that there are not many large predators around that can prey on the young humpback whale calves.

humpback whale migration chart
Migration Patterns for north pacific humpback whales. 60% of the population spends their winter around Hawaii! The data for this graph was gathered for the SPLASH (Structures of Populations -Levels of Abundance -Status of Humpbacks) project, image credits: NOAA.

Where can you find 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.

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. 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.

Hear the Humpback Whales song yourself:

All the whales in the same area (an area that can be as large as an entire ocean basin!) tend to sing similar songs, with only slight variations. Whales from non-overlapping regions sing entirely different songs. These songs evolve constantly (but at varying pace).

You can listen to a 13-minute recording of Hawaiian humpback whales singing by playing the audio fragment below. Don’t they sound a bit like cows?

Male humpback whales perform these songs often during the mating season, you can perhaps best think of them as flirting!

The neat thing is that you can hear the whales sing their famous and ever-changing songs. Because sound carries far under water you can hear these songs even if they are performed 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 out into the ocean, just past the point where the surf breaks. (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, or hold onto something under water like a rock (don’t touch the coral!).
  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 songs 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 to the ocean floor and hold onto something. You will be deep enough when you are at a depth where you can remain with your head under water a few 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!

How to see Humpback whales: whale tours and whale spotting from the shore.

There are two ways to see humpback whales during whale season:

  • The first option is to look at the ocean a lot (explained below). Keep your eyes on the horizon and look for movement. If you get lucky you will see a whale from afar, but this is all but guaranteed.
  • The other option is to go on a whale watching tour. These tours typically last half a day and cost about $100 / person. During these tours you will almost always get to see at least some humpback whales from close-by.

Whale watching tours

One of the most spectacular ways to see the whales is to go on a boat tour.  These tours track the whales and bring you very close to them. Next to seeing the whales, you could also see dolphins, turtles, and, if you are lucky, a whale shark.

Several companies offer these boat tours. Boats often have a bar on board and professional 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 photos. 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, but there are many companies on the Kona coast that offer whale watching tours. A household name for whale watching tours are those organized by Body Glove. To find special offers and/or to see other tours you can start by searching the comparison website hawaiiactivities1.

whale watching, boat tour
If you are lucky the whales will become curious and have a look at the whale watching boats. Image by AucklandwhaleOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Watch the whales from the shore

You can see humpback whales from the shore of the Big Island during the winter months. The only ingredients you need to go whale watching from the shore are:

  1. A place where you can stop/sit and keep your eyes on the ocean;
  2. A healthy dose of luck;
  3. Patience.

The thing that most often will attract your attention is a big spout of steam and a bit of water. This spout comes from a whale breathing out and in again and is visible from a large distance. If you keep your eyes on this spot you might get to see more action.

In general the best places to see whales from the shore are from the north Kona, Kohala, north Kohala and Hilo coast. More specifically, 3 very good places to see whales from the shore on the Big Island are: Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Lapakahi State Historical Park and Kapa’a Beach Park.

You can see where these whale watching spots are on the below, and read more about the spots below the map.

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Puukohola literally means “hill of the whale” in Hawaiian, which should tell you a thing or two about why we put this park on our list. This is an excellent site to see whales with sweeping and elevated views near Kawaihae Harbor.

The Puukohola Heiau site is an interesting place to visit on its own right. It also is located right next to the Spencer Beach park, where there are plenty of picnic tables and a campground.

spencer beach park, whale watching, big island, hawaii
Spencer beach park offers good whale watching conditions through the tables next to the seaside. Image credit: google street view.

Lapakahi State Historical Park

This park is located on the northeastern tip of the Big Island and is especially apt for whale watching because of its 100 feet elevation. You can find the Lapakahi State Historical Park along Highway 270 north of Kawaihae at mile marker 14. The viewing site is located ~100 yards (90 meters) past the gate at the top of the hill and is ~ half a mile from shore.

Tip: this is a hot and sunny place without cover. Bring an umbrella for shade if you have one.
lapakahi, whale watching, big island, hawaii
There is no cover for the sun in the Lapakahi state historical park. Image credit: google maps.

Kapa’a Beach Park

Kapa’a beach park is very close to the Lapakahi state historical park. This site is with an elevation of 20 feet a bit lower than the previous one, but it has one large advantage: covered picnic pavilions!

To get here follow Highway 270 traveling north and turn left on the one-lane paved road just past mile marker 16. The viewing site is located at the end of the road.

kapa'a beach park, big island, hawaii, whale watching
Ocean view and the covered picnic pavilion at the Kapa’a beach park. Image credit: google street view.

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.

Whale watching as volunteer

Did you know that you can combine half a day of whale watching with volunteering if your timing is just right?

The Sanctuary Ocean Count project is a humpback whale monitoring project for residents and visitors alike. The purpose of the project is to have a yearly shore-based count during the peak breeding season as humpback whales are counted from many locations on the shores of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi and Kauaʻi.

The count is held 3 times a year on the last Saturday of January, February, and March (during peak whale season) of each year from 8:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. You need to register ahead of time to participate and can find more information at the Sanctuary ocean count website.

2018  Sanctuary Ocean Count dates

In 2018 the dates for the sanctuary ocean count are:

  • Saturday January 27th, 2018
  • Saturday February 24th, 2018
  • Saturday March 31st, 2018

Registration for the event starts in December,

1. We are part of the hawaiiactivities affiliate program. Read more about our participation.