Every winter, pods of Pacific humpback whales make the 3,000-mile swim from the chilly waters of Alaska to bask in Maui's summery shallows, fluking, spy hopping, spouting, and having an all-around swell time.
The humpback is the star of the annual whale-watching season, which usually begins in December or January and lasts until April or sometimes May. About 1,500 to 3,000 humpback whales appear in Hawaii waters each year. Adults grow to be about 45 feet long and weigh a hefty 40 tons. Humpbacks are officially an endangered species: In 1997, some of the waters around the state were designated the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the country's only federal single-species sanctuary.
Whale-Watching from Shore
Between mid-December and April, you can just look out to sea. There's no best time of day for whale-watching, but the whales seem to appear when the sea is glassy and the wind calm. Once you see one, keep watching in the same vicinity; they might stay down for 20 minutes. Bring a book -- and binoculars, if you can. Some good whale-watching points on Maui include:
McGregor Point -- On the way to Lahaina, there's a scenic lookout at mile marker 9 (just before you get to the Lahaina Tunnel); it's a good viewpoint to scan for whales.
Olowalu Reef -- Along the straight part of Honoapiilani Highway, between McGregor Point and Olowalu, you'll sometimes see whales leap out of the water. Their appearance can bring traffic to a screeching halt: People abandon their cars and run down to the sea to watch, causing a major traffic jam. If you stop, pull off the road so others may pass.
Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa -- On the Wailea coastal walk, stop at this resort to look for whales through the telescope installed as a public service by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Puu Olai -- It's a tough climb up this coastal landmark near the Maui Prince Hotel, but you're likely to be well rewarded: This is the island's best spot for offshore whale-watching. On the 360-foot cinder cone overlooking Makena Beach, you'll be at the right elevation to see Pacific humpbacks as they dodge Molokini and cruise up Alalakeiki Channel between Maui and Kahoolawe. If you don't see one, you'll at least have a whale of a view.
For a closer look, take a whale-watching cruise. The Pacific Whale Foundation, 101 N. Kihei Rd., Kihei (tel. 800/942-5311 or 808/879-8811; www.pacificwhale.org), is a nonprofit foundation in Kihei that supports its whale research by offering cruises and snorkel tours, some to Molokini and Lanai. It operates a 65-foot power catamaran called the Ocean Explorer, a 50-foot sailing catamaran called the Manute'a, and other boats. There are 15 daily trips from which to choose, and the rates for a 2-hour whale-watching cruise would make Captain Ahab smile (starting at $18 for adults, $15 for children). Cruises are offered from December to May, out of both Lahaina and Maalaea harbors.
If you want to combine ocean activities, then a snorkel or dive cruise to Molokini, the sunken crater off Maui's south coast, might be just the ticket. You can see whales on the way there, at no extra charge.
Whale-Watching by Kayak & Raft
Seeing a humpback whale from an ocean kayak or raft is awesome. Capt. Steve's Rafting Excursions (tel. 808/667-5565; www.captainsteves.com) offers 2-hour whale-watching excursions out of Lahaina Harbor from $39 for adults and from $29 for children 5 to 12.
Not So Close! They Hardly Know You -- In your excitement at seeing a whale or a school of dolphins, don't get too close -- both are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Swimmers, kayakers, and windsurfers must stay at least 300 feet away from all whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. And yes, visitors have been prosecuted for swimming with dolphins! If you have any questions, call the National Marine Fisheries Service (tel. 808/541-2727) or the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (tel. 800/831-4888).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.