Maui is simply one of the best vacation destinations on the planet. Sun, Sea, Soft Sand, Lush greenery, Tropical Backdrops, and Warm Coral Reefs teeming with fish. Who wouldn’t want to Vacation here? Well, while we humans love a winter getaway to the Valley Isle we are not alone! Every year a huge population of Humpback Whales escape the Freezing arctic winters and Migrate to the Hawaiian Islands for their winter break. The number 1 location of choice for these Ocean Giants is the wonderful shallow, warm, and protected Au’au Channel lying between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai.
This means that from most of the popular tourist destinations of Maui, Whales can be viewed easily, both from the shore and via whale-watching cruises that take you out to see the whales close up. But the Whales are Transient, meaning they are not always there, and if you visit at the wrong time of year your chances of seeing a whale are very slim indeed. So When is Whale Watching season on Maui and what time of year is best for seeing the Humpbacks? Find out everything you need to know in our Whale Watching Season Guide.
When Is Whale Watching Season On Maui?
Officially the season runs from mid-December through to the end of March the following year. But the real answer is a bit more nuanced, essentially it is possible to see a humpback any time during the year, but in the summer months, it is highly unlikely. The Peak season runs from Mid January till Mid March when whales are abundant and sightings near-constant. but even outside of these months there are a lot of whales in Maui’s water. Stick With us and we will go through it month by month. First a bit more about the whales and what to expect.
Humpback Whales Of Maui
The Humpback Whales of Hawaii are part of the North Pacific Alaskan Population. They spend the summer in the cold waters around the Alaska coast and the bearing sea where they gorge on abundant plankton, krill, and other small marine life. They feast away getting fat on the abundance of food and then as the weather turns even colder the food becomes more scarce the whales Migrate South in search of warmer climes and spend their winter basking in the shallow warm waters of the Maui Coastline. Here they rest, frolic, and mate. Again just like our Human holidays!
The Miraculous Journey, made twice each year is over 3000 miles in some of the wildest and roughest seas in the world. It is an incredible feat performed by Humpbacks the World over as each population has its own special migration route, from polar to tropical each year.
The Area off the west coast of Maui is known as the Au’au Channel, bordered by the Islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe the waters are shallow warm and protected. Meaning “Swimming Pool” The channel is the perfect place to spend your vacation whether you are a whale or human. While most of Maui’s tourist resorts reside here, most of the Hawaiian Whale population also spends their time in these most pleasant of waters. Unlike humans, who feast on Poke, Kalua Pork, and Tropical Fruits, the whales actually have nothing to eat while in Maui.
The Abundant summer feast up in the cooler polar regions has to be enough to last them the winter as they rely on fat stores to keep them going. This is a particular problem for Mothers giving birth. Their fat stores are severely tested. They obviously struggle to put the fat on while their calf grows inside them, they are heavier so the migration is more challenging, and they need to care for and feed the calf when born, and then guide the starving calf back up to the feeding grounds! What that means is, they REALLY must love Maui, Just like us!
How Many Whales are there?
Lots! We are given the impression Whales are rare and on the brink of extinction. Fortunately, this is not true, at least not as true as it was, and certainly not for the humpback. While other species still have concerns, Humpback Populations are thriving and the Hawaiian population is doing as well as any other, possibly due to the remoteness of both the feeding and breeding grounds and the limited shipping on the migration routes. There are over 20,000 Humpbacks in the North Pacific but these populations are spread out over the east and west pacific coasts still NOAA Estimates that around 12,000 Whales Visit the Hawaiian Waters each year!
12,000! That is an incredible number when you consider most spend their time in the Au’Au Channel which is a pretty small body of water. Not all whales are here at the same time however and they come and go, which is pretty important as 12,000 whales all in the channel at once would be one heck of a squeeze. It does mean, if you come during the season there could be hundreds of whales all, lounging and frolicking in Maui’s Beautiful blue waters.
Remember, during the Whale hunting era, this number was MUCH lower. The North Pacific Population was almost wiped out and dropped down to a few as 1,600 individuals! The recovery to over 20,000 individuals is heartwarming and gives hope for the future but is still less than half the Pre-Whaling numbers and the other whales that used to also frequent Hawaiian waters have failed to rebound.
The Bottom line is there is an incredible amount of Whales in the waters off the Maui Coast. So many that in off-peak Season sightings are almost certain. And in Peak Season, there will be so many you genuinely will not know where to look, tours will sail right by pods, simply as they do not seem too active, safe in the knowledge there will be another pod just up the coast somewhere. It really is incredible.
The Other Islands?
You can do Whale watching tours on all the other Islands, Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island, but none even come close to Maui. The protected Channel is just a Mecca for the whales and sightings around the other islands are in deeper water and are usually transient and unreliable. Maui is probably the best Whale viewing location in the world, and if you get the chance, make sure you do your whale watching here as the other islands are a really poor substitute.
When is it best to See the Whales?
As we said at the start whale season is from Mid December through to the end of March, during this time you are pretty much guaranteed to see Whales. Every tour will offer a Guaranteed but it is unlikely to have to honor it, simply because you will see them.
But the whale season is a fluid thing Whales come and go and they are not the same whales all the time. Females arrive first, then the Bull Males pile in for the mating season. After which they clear off along with any females who are not pregnant. Number drop off but there are still Whales present and the calving females remain until the very end and they have had their calves. These females will be accompanied by maternal groups that remain to lend a hand.
Finally, after all the calves have been born, almost all the whales will leave the waters heading off to the feeding ground to fatten up again!
October is a gamble with the odds getting shorter as the month progresses. Most Tour operators do not offer Whale watching tours during the month as there is a good chance they won’t manage to find the few early arrivals. But if you are on the water for another tour keep your eyes peeled and you may spot an early bird.
November is the month when some tours start operating and the whales start arriving. Numbers are a little unpredictable hence why it is considered an off-peak season. It is mainly pregnant females and younger males arriving. As the Whales have just arrived the activity is low, mainly just surface blows with the odd fin slap. Unsurprising after a 2500mile swim.
The Large Males start arriving through December along with the adult females ready for mating season. Late December is when the breeding males start their mating behavior so breaches, fluke, and pec slaps and full-on breaching begins.
The Beginning of January will see hundreds of whales populating the Channel and this only gets better as the month drags on. Surface activity ramps up as the males compete for the right to mate. This is peak season and the only way to not see whales in the Channel is to close your eyes, even then you will probably hear them!
We are in full Peak Season now. Not only are there hundreds of whales they are frisky and flamboyant. Expect lots of displays of breaching, Tail and Pec Slapping, and frequent sightings. Tours will barely leave the harbor before spotting Whales and any shore spotting location (see below) will be alive with prancing Males the size of buses.
Calving also begins to take place in February as the products of last year’s breeding begin their lives. There are increasingly good chances of seeing an hours-old baby, as the month draws on. And yes that is one of the most incredible sights imaginable.
At some point in March, the Whales begin to leave. Mating has concluded and the whales head back to the breeding grounds. The precise date is unknown it can be early March through till nearer the end, but there will be a marked reduction. You are still likely to see whales after the exodus begins, but it is mainly unsuccessful (but still hopeful) males and maternal groups with newborns who are just not quite ready to head off to feed. The activity can still be high as Jouviniles mimic their parents and will learn the behaviors of breaching, Fluke slapping, pec slaps, and all the things we love to see as whale watches.
April will always produce whale sightings but the consistency and quality wane as the month draws on. By the end, sightings are fewer, and the quality of those sightings is poor. The month is still considered Whale season but compared to the peak months there are very few whales to be seen, this does vary year on year but as a whole, the majority of the whales have moved on.
May is pretty much the same. It is the month of stragglers, males who failed to mate desperately seeking a partner, which have, by and large, moved on. Maternal groups whose offspring arrived late and are not quite ready to move off yet and the odd whale who is just enjoying the warm waters and are not quite in the mood for a 2500+ mile migration just yet.
By the end of the month even those will have moved on and the only chance of a sighting is the rare and passing glimpse of a solitary whale who decided not to migrate. The chances of this are slim, however.
June – September
Between June and September, the season has completely finished and no Whale Watching tours will run. There is the odd whale that refuses to leave or is too weak to make the 2500-mile journey but they are rarely seen. Any whale sighting in this period is hugely fortunate, and by and large, you can pretty much say you are guaranteed to NOT see Whales during these months. There is so much else to see and do on the islands, and the weather is more stable so you will have a great time, you just won’t see the Whales
Whale Sightings Tracker
The best way to see just how many Whales are likely to be around when you go is to use a Whale Sightings Tracker. The Pacific Whale Foundation records sightings on its whale-watching trips and records them on its tracker so you can see exactly when and how many whales will be around.
What is the Best Way To See the Whales?
The Obvious answer is via a whale Watching tour. But this is really not always the best answer. As we have mentioned, Whales in Maui are unbelievably numerous and easy to spot so there is no need for a dedicated Whale Watching Tour. However, they will get you the most amount of whale encounters possible and target better displays.
We discuss Whale Watching tours here and which are the best. A tour is a fantastic way to really get up close to the whales. Even though the tours are forbidden to approach whales they tend to loiter near them which increases the chances of the whales choosing to investigate the Boat.
Any Activity out on the water in peak season is going to see Whales. A Dinner, Cruise, Snorkel Tour, or Even a party boat, the chances are the crew will stumble across whales at some point. Being out on the water is magical in Maui and any tour during peak Whale season is going to kill two birds with one stone.
However, there is nothing in the world better than sitting on your Lanai, with a Mai Tai in hand, watching the whales frolic out on the ocean. There is no shortage of locations along the Maui Coastline where you can watch whales right from the shore.
While this is probably the best way, we still recommend you get out and see them in their own habitat. But simply seeing whales while enjoying your morning coffee, or watching them breach as the sun goes down is really magical.
Where is Best to See the Whales from Shore?
First of all, you need to be on the coastline facing the Au’Au Channel. Fortunately, this is the coast where most resorts are. Kihei, Wailea, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Napili, and Kapalua all face out onto the channel. Many hotels and condos will have direct whale viewing from the Lanai if you have an ocean view.
During the peak, there is a good chance of spotting whales from just about any beach, lookout point, Coastal path, or hotel room that looks out over the channel. But we have a few favorites where the whale sightings are particularly good.
This is always our first and last stop if we are staying in West Maui. The beautiful scenic overlook provides stunning views down the South Maui Coastline, Molokini, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe. With its raised elevation and expansive views covering so much of the channel, you are pretty much, guaranteed whale sightings. The Pull-out gets pretty busy which means lots of eyes scanning the water. So you can expect plenty of pointers to actually locate the whales.
The Gazebo offers one the best breakfasts on the Island and is accompanied by utterly stunning views out towards Molokai. Whales frequently frolic close to shore here. The Napili Shores Resort has a Whale Watching bell that can be rung when whales are spotted. And from staying in the resort during whale season we can say that the bell rings constantly all day. Enjoying Pancakes and Coffee on a beautiful morning with a side order of Humpback Whales sightings is enough to make anyone pack their life up and move to Maui forever.
We love the Blowhole and always make time to visit when in Maui. But along with the Acid War Zone, Heartshaped Rock, Stunning Views, and an awesome Blowhole, the area also doubles as a great Whale lookout point. And unlike the other attractions, you don’t need to hike down a cliff to see the whales. Once parked up simply head out onto the headland for expansive views over the ocean where whales often frolic and play in the seas below. The ocean conditions can be a little wilder out here making blows harder to spot, but when combined with everything else at the blowhole it’s well worth a visit.
South Maui is not the best place for whale watching in general as the coast is all quite low level, for the best viewing you need a little elevation. Your best shot at that in South Maui is a high-floor Hotel Lanai. But failing that the Wailea Beach Path is elevated above the beaches and ocean. This gives you a good shot at seeing whales while enjoying a wonderful stroll down one of the most beautiful coastal walkways in the world.
For your best shot at Whales in South Maui, you have to leave the resort areas. The best bet is to head to Big and Little Beach, The rocky outcrop between the two provides some good elevation and the whales can come quite close to the headland. For the energetic a hike up the Puu, Olai Cindercone gives phenomenal views out into the channel and almost certain Whale sightings.
NOT the Honoapiilani highway
Oh and forgive us for stating the Obvious but try not to spot whales from the Highway. As we have pointed out Whale sightings are very frequent and it’s quite possible to spot them from the road, especially the Honoapiilani highway, but concentrate on the road. It may sound obvious but there are accidents every year from people whale watching rather than traffic watching!
Of course, Passengers are free to gawp out into the blue, but if you see activity, pull over rather than end up in the back of the car in front! It puts a real downer on your trip!
What Time of Day is Best to See Whales?
Anytime! sort of… The Whales are there all day and night and while like us they get a bit of sleep in the night, that is pretty irrelevant as you won’t see them in the dark water anyway. Other than that, time is pretty irrelevant. Expect ocean conditions can certainly affect both Visibility, Whale activity, where the whales hang out, and your comfort and enjoyment if out on a boat. Ocean Conditions are also affected by the time of day.
Early morning is when the ocean is calmer, this makes spotting whales easier as in rougher conditions a whale can surface behind the swell, obscured from view. In heavy swells, the Whales will be less active and spend more time under the surface. They will also tend to move to deeper parts of the Channel making shore viewing more difficult as deeper is often further from shore. And obviously, boat tours are far less enjoyable in heavy swells.
This all makes Morning the best time to spot whales or take a tour, however whale activity in peak months is so high, you often don’t need to do anything at all to spot whales as they are so abundant.
Have Your Say
Have you seen the Whales on Maui? Did you see them from the Shore or from a Whale Watching Tour? Maybe you did both? Did you do another ocean activity and see Whales? Maybe you saw Whales out of season, or outside the Au’A Channel? Whatever it is if you have something to say about Whale Season on Maui just leave us a comment and if you have any questions just fire away.