Humpback whales make their annual journey to Hawaii between the months of November and April (whale season), and the Big Island is our favorite of the Hawaiian islands to see them! Other great islands for whale watching are Maui and Kauai.
Table of contents -- our whale watching guide is structured around the following topics:
- Why are we such a big fan of Humpback Whales?
- Why do the whales come to Hawaii?
- Our 7 best whale watching tips:
- Whale Watching Tours
- DIY whale watching from the shore (including viewing locations)
- Whale Watching as a volunteer activity: the Sanctuary Ocean Count
A quick summary: there are many ways to experience these majestic animals. You can listen to the whales under water, spot them from shore, or see them up-close from a boat. All of this (and more) is explained in our following guide.
Why are humpback whales so amazing?
The immense (on average 45 ft, but lengths up to 60 ft are possible) humpback whales (na kohola) are an endangered species that was brought to the brink of extinction by whalers in the last century. Now, thanks to international protection, their numbers have increased to a current total global population of about 80 thousand. Of these, roughly 12 to 18 thousand (2015 estimate, see page 82, D.3.1 and D.4) visit Hawai’i during the winter months.
Just like us, whales are very playful and despite their size humpback whales are surprisingly acrobatic. They demonstrate this by frequently breaching (which you can see yourself) and slapping their tails on the water. Humpback whales are also renowned for their beautiful, haunting songs, which, again, you can experience yourself.
Humpback whales have a strong cultural value in Hawaii. To the native Hawaiians a whale is the representation of the Hawaiian god Kanaloa -- the god of all ocean life.
The following trailer, filmed partly in Hawaiian waters, offers an up-close look at how humpback whales communicate, sing, feed, play and care for their young.
Why do the whales come to Hawaii?
Humpback whales are a migratory species which means that they migrate every year between the cool waters close to the poles and (sub)tropical waters. Whales belonging to the North pacific whale population swim an average of 6,000 miles a year, but migrations of up to 16,000 miles a year have been documented! This makes Humpback Whales one of the best-traveled mammals in the world.
So why do the whales come to Hawai’i, you ask? Strangely enough, for the same reason as many of our other visitors: to take a break!
Humpback Whales spend their summers feeding and building up fat reserves in the cool higher latitude waters and then spend cold winters in our warmer tropical waters to mate, give birth, and to raise their calves (children) in a safe environment and far from natural predators.
Because there is very little food for the whales in (sub) tropical oceans they instead fast during their Hawaiian vacations and live off their fat reserves. 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. In essence, Hawaii offers them a bit of a safe zone.
That is why we can see whales in Hawaii:
Whale Watching Tips
Seeing some of the largest animals on earth in their natural habitat is a fantastic experience. And of course, the more whales the better! We are here to help you with that.
Read our whale watching tips to be well-prepared for your trip and to help you be more successful at spotting whales:
- Look for whales during humpback whale season
- 4 great tips learned from 20+ years of whale watching and tens of thousands of whale sightings
- Where do most whales hang out?
- How to hear a humpback whale sing (with audio)
#1: When is Whale Watching season in Hawaii?
Humpback whale season on the Hawaiian islands is between November and Early May, but some months are better than others.
The first whales start arriving to the Big Island in late November, and more arrive as the season continues, until their numbers peak in the months of January, February, and March. The whales depart Hawai’i again late April / early May. The best months for whale watching are summarized in the following table:
|Month||Probability of seeing whales|
|April||Medium (early April) to Low (late April)|
|June -- October||No humpback whales in Hawaii :(|
|December||Medium (whale watching tours start mid-December)|
#2: 4 lessons learned from tens of thousands of whale sightings:
Every year since 1996 volunteers have been counting the whales at many locations throughout the Hawaiian islands for the Sanctuary Ocean Count. For over 20 years now, hundreds of volunteers in Hawaii have documented several thousands of whale sightings.
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 goes down by half, 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 8:00 am is ~50% higher than the amount spotted just a few hours later at noon. Another good reason for an early whale watch is the weather, as mornings are often calmer, meaning that the ocean surface is more glassy.
- 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 zero sightings and other sites with as many as 15-20.
#3: How to hear the Humpback Whale song yourself
You have several options to see and hear the whales while they are in Hawaii. The most popular one, obviously, is visiting them up-close from a tour boat, but did you know that you also can hear the humpback whales sing yourself?
Only male humpback whales sing, and their songs are part of their competition for potential mates. Whales in the same area (which 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. All whale songs are also constantly evolving, though at varying paces.
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?
As male humpback whales perform these songs most often during the mating season, you can think of them as a form of whale flirting or a courtship ritual.
Because sound carries further under water than on land, you can hear these songs even if they are performed several miles off shore. If you are swimming and are lucky enough to see whales out in the ocean, you need only to do the following:
Listen to the whales while swimming
- 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 if you are a strong swimmer).
- Take a deep breath and swim to the bottom, dig your hands in the sand, or hold onto something under water like a rock (but be careful not to touch any corals).
- Clear your ears by closing your nose with your fingers and blowing air out of your nose. You should hear your ears “pop”.
- Listen and enjoy the whales serenades.
Listen to the whales while snorkeling
Snorkeling makes listening to the whale songs much easier, though 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 a telltale white water spout off shore), try the following:
- 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.
- Take a deep breath of air, dive down to the ocean floor and hold onto something. You will be deep enough when you can remain with your head a few feet under water without breaking the surface.
- Clear your ears by closing your nose with your fingers and blowing air out of your nose. You should hear your ears “pop”.
- Listen and enjoy!
#4: Where can you see the most whales in Hawaii?
Aerial surveys for whales, such as the one shown below, elegantly illustrate which places are best for whale spotting. Boat tours consistently visit these same waters for good reasons, and those wanting to catch a glimpse of the whales from shore would be wise to let this map guide their choice viewing spots as well.
For the Big Island you will have best chance of seeing whales in the North Kona, and north and south Kohala districts.
If you are very passionate about whale watching, but aren’t interested in a boat tour, you could consider spending the day in Waipi’o valley, hiking to Pololu valley, or having a sunset picnic in Holoholokai Beach Park.
Below are the results of an aerial survey for whales performed between 1993 and 2003. The red zones are the best spots for whale spotting. Scroll down for a better description of our 3 favorite on-shore whale watching spots.
Whale watching tours
One of the easiest and most spectacular ways to see the whales is to join a boat tour. Tours are a fascinating experience and allow you to see the humpbacks from very close-by. They typically last half a day, and cost about $100 per person. Next to seeing the whales, you might also see dolphins, turtles, or maybe even whale sharks!
There are many companies that offer whale watching tours on private boats, almost all along the Kona coast. These boats often have a bar on board and they employ professional guides making these several-hour outings a real treat. Whale tours are only offered during whale season, starting typically early to mid December and lasting to the end of March.
A household name that we trust to provide consistently high-quality whale watching tours is Body Glove. To find special offers and/or to see other tours you can start e.g. by searching the comparison website hawaiiactivities1.
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 for seeing the whales as well as possible. The following video shows humpback whales playing in the waters of Oahu’s North Shore:
Watch the whales from the shore
You can easily see humpback whales from the shore of the Big Island during the winter months. The three ingredients you need for shoreline whale spotting are:
- A good place where to relax and keep your eyes on the ocean.
- A stroke of good luck.
The thing that will most often attract your attention is a big spout of water from the ocean surface. This spout comes from a whale breathing in and out again and is visible from large distances. Keep your eyes on/near this spot and you are likely to see more whale action.
In general, the best places to see whales from the shore are from the North Kona, Kohala, North Kohala and Hilo coasts. 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 view these whale watching spots and read more about them on the map below:
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’ve chosen this spot for our list. This is an excellent site for spotting whales and also offers sweeping and elevated views toward the Kawaihae Harbor.
Lapakahi State Historical Park
This park is located on the northeastern tip of the Big Island and is especially suitable for whale watching because of its 100 ft. 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 and at the top of the hill. It is about a half a mile from the shoreline.
Kapa’a Beach Park
Kapa’a Beach Park is very close to Lapakahi Park and the best spot for whale watching is about 20 feet lower. Howeverm it has one huge advantage: covered picnic pavilions!
To get here, follow Highway 270 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.
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 of each year from 8:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. You’ll need to register ahead of time to participate and can find more information at the Sanctuary ocean count website.
2020 Sanctuary Ocean Count dates
The 2020 dates will be held:
- Saturday January 25th, 2020
- Saturday February 29th, 2020
- Saturday March 28th, 2020
Registration for all 3 dates is possible at this website (starting mid December 2019).