Working on the ocean every day we become accustomed to the changing ocean conditions, the vessels, marine life, and navigating the variables. It’s easy for us to assume that everyone feels comfortable on the ocean, so we appreciate the chance to answer questions like “Is whale watching safe?” to help visitors feel more comfortable and understand that whale watching is a safe and fun activity to do while in Maui!
How do you know if whale watching is safe?
How we Analyze Whale Behavior
The first variable we evaluate to determine if whale watching is safe is humpback whale behavior. Our captains and marine naturalists have been working around humpback whales both in Maui and Alaska for many years, learning their behavior, habits and how they communicate. Humpback whales communicate with body language like pec fin slapping, tail slapping, head lunging, fin sailing, breaching and other surface moves, showing their intentions, attracting other whales and how they feel toward the vessels, etc.
The best time of day for whale watching is anytime of day! Whales are active and resting 24 hours a day. They do not feed while they are in Hawaii, their behavior is related to mating and giving birth which happens at random intervals day and night. Our captains do their best to find whales that are in their “active” mode, not resting mode. 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!).
Humpback whales have been protected in the Maui Nui Basin since the 1990’s when the waters between Maui and Lanai were designated a sanctuary for them. Those protections include the approach law where we do not get closer than 100 yards to a humpback whale, leaving room for the humpback whales to come to our vessel and continue their behavior as normal. Humpback whales are gentle by nature and we watch them interact with our vessels daily with so much body awareness. We have never had an encounter where a humpback whale endangered the vessel or guests.
The Importance of Trained Captains and Marine Naturalists
As we spot whales, our operators, (licensed captains and marine naturalists), assess their behavior and determine what it means. They are trained to analyze whale behavior and do their best to determine the activity level of that particular humpback whale. Like any animal observations, time and experience help the captains and naturalists spot active whales easier and know which behaviors you may see in each setting. Whales travel in pods, but in Maui can be seen alone, a mom and calf pair, a mom calf and escort trio or comp/ “competition” pods of male humpback whales fighting over the rights to mate with the present female humpback whale. Our captains and naturalists can often predict what kind of surface behavior we will observe based on the group of whales we encounter!
Our captains will always prioritize guest safety, so if there is an instance where they observe behavior that may indicate the animals are in distress (maybe entangled etc), we remove ourselves from the presence of the animal and contact the NOAA whale entanglement hotline. Their first responders (including our owner Peter Colombo) are trained and wear protective gear when interacting with humpback whales that are in distress. Using special vessels and equipment they will attempt to free the whale by cutting line or weighting the lines so they pull free themselves. It is not that the animals are choosing to be aggressive toward the boat, but they are trying to free themselves from fishing line, hooks or other entanglement and their movement can endanger the observer. So never try to free a whale on your own, always call trained professionals!
Making the Call on Ocean Conditions
Although weather does not affect whale behavior, it can often inhibit our ability to see whales and determine their behavior and what kind of encounter we may have. Our captains will also be assessing weather conditions to ensure weather and swell are safe for whale watching.
Our vessels can handle almost any weather but it doesn’t mean it’s fun to be out in rain and wind. Our captains use special weather reports and years of experience to determine if the weather will make for a safe and enjoyable whale watching tour. It is typical to have light tropical rains, north swell and occasional wind during our winter months. We always err on the side of caution and will reschedule or refund guests if the weather is not cooperating for their scheduled whale watch tour, which would include severe rain, strong north winds or large swell. Because weather conditions changed quickly and frequently on the island, we typically make weather calls within an hour or two of the whale watching tours. Always bring a light jacket and waterproof bag for phones and valuables as whales occasionally splash the boat even when the sky is clear and there is no rain you can still get a little wet!
Vessels Made for Anything
Humpback whales are not considered dangerous to boats during Maui whale watching tours. Our vessels are 27 foot, aluminum hulls with inflatable pontoons. This style of rafting zodiac is modeled after coastguard rescue rafts, made to weather storms, and be highly maneuverable. This low to water raft makes for incredible whale encounters. If a humpback whale decides to swim up to the boat, you are sitting eye level with the gentle giant and can even put your go-pro in the water and capture underwater footage of the whales. We have never had an encounter where a humpback whale attempted to move our boat or put us in danger. Although our rafts are quick and maneuverable, we drive slower in winter time to give ourselves time to stop or move around whales that may surface quickly. As mentioned above, if we encounter a whale that is entangled, we will report it and do not attempt to free it as that may encourage aggressive behavior from the animal that is in pain.
Whale watching in Maui is a fun and safe island activity you don’t want to miss. This is one of the last great animal migrations in the world and seeing more than 10,000 humpback whales come back to Hawaii every year is an experience that will stay with you a lifetime.
Check out our whale watching tours!