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Hawaii Whale Watching: A Seasonal Maui Adventure

Hawaii whale watching is truly a memorable experience. In this article, we will focus on whale watching off the island of Maui. Whale-watching season starts as early as November, but the largest number of whales travel through Hawaii waters from mid-December to mid-April.

Each year during this time, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 humpback whales migrate south from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. Scientists estimate that this 3,000 mile swimming trip takes them from 80 to 100 days.

The whales seem to favor the calmer bays and wide bank areas between the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai. With their bulky heads and two blow-holes, they can often be seen cavorting in the warm waters, breaching and slapping the surface of the water. Here they mate, or bear their "calves" conceived the previous winter.

A mature humpback whale is about 45 feet in length and can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Their calves weigh around 3,000 pounds at birth and feed off their mother's high-fat milk for six to eight months, consuming 100 to 130 gallons per day.


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Strangely enough, the adult whales do not eat while in Hawaii, since they are "seasonal" feeders. However, when they return to their Arctic habitat an average humpback whale will consume 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of plankton, krill (small, shrimp-like creatures), and fish per day!

On Maui, the opportunities for whale-watching from land are extensive. A good vantage point for seeing whales from land is basically anywhere you get a pretty a wide ocean view. McGregor Point, at mile marker 9, as you head from Maalaea, toward Lahaina, is a well-known whale- watching place. Continuing toward Lahaina, whales can also be seen off the Olowalu Reef - between McGregor Point and the town of Olowalu.

When you head south on the Wailea coast, the Outrigger Wailea Resort provides another excellent viewing spot, with a telescope installed by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. South from Wailea, Puu Olai overlooking Makena Beach is considered Maui's best spot for whale-watching.

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Whale watching requires patience. Scan the horizon for a cloud of spewing water that rises from 10 to 20 feet above the ocean's surface. Watch for a good half-hour or so; whales need to breath every 7 to 20 minutes, and their spray is simply water vapor that they exhale from their blow hole. So once you locate that tell-tale spray of water, focus your eyes on the area for another one. Here binoculars are especially helpful.

But the best way to see humpback whales is out in their domain - and you can book a whale-watching cruise for that. Maui is the home of the Pacific Whale Foundation. A non-profit whale research organization, it supports its research by offering whale-watching tours.

In addition, almost every snorkel and dive-boat in the area becomes a whale-watching vessel in winter. Maui whale-watching tours leave Lahaina and Maalaea harbors daily during the winter months. In addition to humpbacks, sperm whales, pilot whales, pygmy killer whales, beaked whales, melon-headed whales and "false" killer whales can often be seen there. You can also view the whales on a rafting expedition. These excursions also leave daily from Lahaina harbor.

The whale may play a little game with you - he will poke his head just above the water's surface to "scope out the scene." That kind of behavior is actually called a "spy hop," meaning it's his way of showing off (if he feels so inclined). He'll then leap completely out of the water. If he's only in the mood to exchange nods, he'll slap his tail or wave his side fins at you - that's the humpback whale's way of saying "Hi!"

Whales communicate underwater through mysterious "songs," forming a perplexing series of sounds. Most whale-watching charters on Maui have a hydrophone on board, which will enable you to hear and enjoy the complex sounds of these majestic creatures.

Remember that humpback whales are protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act, and you may come no closer than 100 yards. Even at that distance you will sense the power and beauty of these creatures, and you will come away with memories of a lifetime.

Written by Bob Freer

Bob Freer loves to share his experiences of travel. His current passion is Hawaii. He writes about the Hawaiian Islands on his website 

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