When is the best time of year to see whales in Hawaii? The answer is right now!
More than 10,000 Northern Pacific Humpback Whales migrate back to Hawaii every year from Alaska during the winter months to mate and give birth. They travel 3000 miles to the Hawaii islands which is the most remote island chain in the world. Although you can see whales around most of the Hawaii Islands, it's estimated that about 75% of the humpback whale population spends their winters on Maui, in the calm warm water of the Maui Nui Basin.
Because the majority of the population resides in the Maui Nui Basin, this location along Maui’s west coast became a sanctuary for Humpback Whales in the 1990’s as a means to enact protection regulations to reduce threats and support the recovery of their population. In the last 50 years the humpback whale population has grown from an estimated 10,000 animals to over 80,000 animals at a rate of 3%-10% annually.
With the population increasing, whale watching in Maui has become a bucket list activity. The best time of year to go whale watching in Maui are the winter months.
The best time for whale watching is December through April!
Because humpback whales migrate in a trickle migration pattern, there are some months of the year that are better for whale watching because more whales are in Hawaii during those months. The earliest we see humpback whales appear in Hawaii is October, but there are just a few animals that began their migration that early. By the end of November, around the Thanksgiving holiday, we have more regular whale sightings and guaranteed humpback whale sightings for tours starting December 1st every year.
Although December is early in the migration season, we still see humpback whales on every tour and are looking for those with active surface behavior. It doesn't take many whales to have a great whale watching, just a couple of curious and friendly ones!
Although the best time of year to see whales is December through April, the peak of the season is happening right now, January through March!
By the month of January, we are seeing more whale action than December, and by February we have what we call “whale soup”. Everywhere you look, you see humpback whales! By this time thousands of humpback whales are mating, giving birth and spending their winter vacation along Maui’s coast. March we still have lots of action packed whale encounters as the migration begins to wind down and is over by the middle of the month of April.
Occasionally you will see a few straggler whales in May, but there are not enough whales for us to offer whale watching tours. During the summer months we snorkel and dolphin watch, and then prepare for another season of whale watching. Any month during winter you will see whales in Maui, but the best time to see whales is between Christmas and the end of March because there are more whales in Maui. Early December and middle of April you will still see whales, there will just be fewer. It doesn't take many whales for an awesome encounter, just one curious whale to make your whale watching tour magical.
We answer “What time of day do we see whales”!
The best time of day for whale watching is any time of the day! Whales are active and resting 24 hours a day. They have intervals of activity and rest because they do not feed while they are in Hawaii, their behavior is related to mating and giving birth which happens at random during the day and night. Our captains do their best to find whales that are in their “active” mode, not resting mode.
Some times of day are preferable for whale watching if you are taking professional photos. Not because of whale activity, but because of the lighting preferred for above or underwater photography. If you are planning to photograph humpback whales above water, the early morning and sunset tours offer the softest light for your backdrop. If you are hoping for underwater captures of humpback whales, mid day when the sun is highest will offer the best lighting for those shots taken with a go-pro, waterproof phone or cameras in waterproof housings.
You can choose any time of day for whale watching, sunrise to sunset (and yes they are even active in the dark, it's just a little harder to spot them!).
Whale behavior you may see on your Maui whale watching tour
Humpback whales will display active surface behavior which is also how they communicate! Their body language can tell other whales information related to mating and competing, or teaching their young important behaviors they will use when they are grown!
Some surface behaviors you may see are:
Pectoral Fin Slapping
Humpback whales have the largest of all pectoral fins of whales, measuring up to 16 feet each! Humpback whales will lay on their side and slap their large pec fins against the water, making a big splash and loud sound. We often observe female humpback whales displaying this behavior as a way to get the attention of male humpback whales during mating season.
Tail slapping is a way of communicating either an aggressive move to warn other whales to stay away or also to get the attention of a potential mate. Fun fact about whale tails (also called a fluke), has a unique pattern special to each whale like a fingerprint! Researchers use photos of flukes to track whale patterns and behavior and follow specific whales through their life. The website HappyWhale.com is a website and app where you can upload your own photos of flukes and learn about the whale you have sighted.
Breaching occurs when a humpback whale jumps out of the water. Humpback whales are moving at approximately 28km/hr to propel their 40 tons from under the surface of the water. Scientists believe whales breach for a few reasons, including making noise for attention, cleaning themselves and teaching their young.
When whales want to get a better view of surface activity they push their heads above the water, which is called spy hopping. When whales spy hop near our boats during the whale watch tour you can see the whale’s tubulars and the little hairs that grow out of them!
Whale watching is one of Maui’s best activities. If you are visiting Maui during the months of December through April, put whale watching on your Hawaii vacation bucket list! Book a whale watching tour at Hawaii Ocean Rafting. If you have any questions about whale watching in Hawaii, you can give us a call or send us a message!