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Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales. From December to early May, thousands of these magnificent marine mammals make the 6,000-mile roundtrip journey from their Alaskan feeding grounds to the warm, calm waters off the islands of Hawaii to give birth and nurse their young calves.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the main whales spotted in Hawaiian waters are humpback whales, although false killer whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, pygmy killer whales, and sperm whales can also occasionally be sighted.

Read on below for more in-depth information on the different whale species found in Hawaiian waters, the best times and locations to spot them, whale watching etiquette and regulations, and some amazing facts about these gentle ocean giants.

Humpback Whales in Hawaii

Identification and Physical Characteristics

Humpback whales are one of the most easily recognizable whales with their long pectoral fins and knobby heads. Adult humpbacks can reach up to 60 feet in length and weigh around 40 tons. They have a distinct body shape with incredibly long pectoral fins that can reach up to 15 feet in length.

Humpbacks are black on the upper side and mottled black and white on the underbelly. Each humpback whale has a unique black and white pattern on the underside of its fluke that researchers use to identify individual whales.


Humpback whales are incredibly acrobatic, often breaching (jumping out of the water) and slapping their long pectoral fins. They use their massive tails to propel themselves out of the water. Researchers believe breaching may be a form of communication or display of dominance.

Humpbacks are also known for “lobtailing” where they lift their flukes out of the water and slap them on the surface.

Humpback whales are popular among whale watchers because of their active surface behaviors and haunting songs. Male humpbacks produce complex songs that can last up to 30 minutes and be heard underwater over great distances.

The melodies, rhythm, tone and sequence of notes identify the population and location of singing whales.

Birthing and Nursing

From January through March, pregnant female humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds near Alaska to the warm, shallow waters of Hawaii to give birth. Humpback whale pregnancies last 11-12 months, after which a single calf is born measuring up to 15 feet long and weighing 2-3 tons.

Newborn calves nurse frequently on their mother’s fat-rich milk, consuming around 100-150 gallons per day and gaining a hefty 200 pounds daily. After nearly a year gestation, this high-calorie milk allows calves to quickly grow and store blubber to withstand colder northern waters.

The strong mother-calf bond formed in Hawaii’s breeding grounds lasts for approximately one year until the calf is weaned.

Humpback Whale Population and Threats

It’s estimated over 10,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaii each winter to mate, give birth and nurse newborn calves. However, commercial whaling during the 19th and 20th centuries severely depleted global humpback populations. In the North Pacific, commercial whaling removed over 28,000 whales.

By 1966, humpbacks were listed as endangered with as few as 1,000 remaining.

Since whaling bans took effect in the 1960s and 1970s, most humpback populations have substantially recovered. Hawaii’s humpbacks rebounded around 7% annually from the 1980s into the early 2000s. However, recent surveys indicate growth rates have slowed.

Experts suggest the carrying capacity may have been reached. With climate change impacting prey availability in northern feeding grounds, continued conservation is vital for this iconic Hawaiian whale.

Other Whale Species in Hawaii

False Killer Whales

The false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) is a large member of the dolphin family that gets its name from resembling the more famous killer whale (or orca). Groups of false killer whales are regularly spotted off the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries website, Hawaiian populations likely number in the hundreds to low thousands. These intelligent, social cetaceans can reach lengths of over 20 feet and are distinguishable by their dark color and curved dorsal fins.

Pilot Whales

There are two species of pilot whales that reside around Hawaii: short-finned (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and long-finned (Globicephala melas). As their names suggest, the shape and size of the dorsal fin differs between the two.

Both are highly social, cooperative feeders that travel in large pods of a couple dozen to over a hundred individuals. According to the NOAA humpback whale research site focused on Hawaii, short-finned pilot whales are more often sighted around the islands.

Their jet black color, bulbous head, and stocky appearance makes them distinct from other cetaceans.

Melon-Headed Whales

The melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra) is named after the bulbous, melon-like shape of its forehead. These tropical whales are found worldwide in pelagic waters and are occasionally spotted around Hawaii.

They are similar in size and appearance to pilot whales but their head shape and coloring helps distinguish them. Melon-headed whales form large, gregarious groups of a few hundred to over a thousand, as documented in places like the Kohala resident population near Hawaii Island.

Their acrobatic nature, use of echolocation for feeding, and member grunting for communication showcase their intelligence.

Pygmy Killer Whales

As their name hints, pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata) are smaller relatives of orcas found in tropical and subtropical oceans. Around Hawaii, they roam offshore waters in groups generally less than 100, feeding on fish and cephalopods.

Adult pygmy killer whales may reach up to 9 feet long and have a distinctive gray cape behind their rounded melon-shaped head. According to the NOAA fisheries site, certain Hawaiian populations show site fidelity around islands, suggesting localized cultures.

Sperm Whales

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the largest of the toothed whale species in existence. Males can grow over 60 feet long and weigh 45 tons. Sperm whales are less frequently spotted around Hawaii compared to humpback whales, but are occasionally seen.

NOAA documents approximately 700 sperm whales living in Hawaiian waters that likely belong to multiple populations. They are distinguished by their massive square head comprising one-third of their body length. Sperm whales are deep divers, plunging over 1 mile to hunt giant squid and other prey.

Best Locations and Times to See Whales in Hawaii

Hawaii provides some of the best whale watching opportunities in the world. Several species of whales migrate to the warm Hawaiian waters each winter to mate, give birth, and care for their young. The peak viewing season is typically from December through April, with January to March being the absolute best times to spot majestic humpback whales.


Oahu is one of the most popular islands for whale watching. During peak season, there are many whales visible right off the shores of famous beaches like Waikiki and the North Shore. Some top spots include:

  • Diamond Head Lookout – This scenic lookout point offers fabulous views overlooking the ocean where whales can often be spotted below.
  • Hanauma Bay – A picturesque nature preserve that is a hotspot for spotting whale spouts and splashing.
  • North Shore – Iconic beaches like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay are excellent for spotting whales close to shore.


Maui is another exceptional island for whale watching. There are many lookout points and boat tours that provide visitors with frequent sightings of humpbacks each winter. Some exceptional spots are:

  • McGregor Point Lookout – A renowned lookout in Wailea that offers panoramic views where whale watching is world-class.
  • Kaanapali Beach – A stunning stretch of sand where whales often swim remarkably close to shore.
  • Pacific Whale Foundation Cruises – Award-winning catamaran tours with a 98% success rate for whale sightings.


The dramatic cliffs and coastlines of Kauai make it one of Hawaii’s most scenic islands for whale watching. Some fruitful locations include:

  • Kilauea Lighthouse – This picturesque lighthouse is surrounded by prime whale watching waters, with sightings on over 90% of days during peak season.
  • Poipu Beach Park – A popular family beach with an outlook where whales are regularly spotted.
  • Princeville Lookout – Breathtaking views over Hanalei Bay, where humpbacks often splash and breach below.

So pack your binoculars and get ready for an amazing whale watching experience on your next Hawaiian vacation! With a little patience, you’re almost guaranteed to have some memorable sightings.

Whale Watching Guidelines and Regulations in Hawaii

Whale watching in Hawaii is an amazing opportunity to see these gentle giants up close. However, there are some important guidelines and regulations in place to ensure the safety of both whales and humans. Here is a summary of the key things to know:

Approaching Whales

When whales approach your vessel, you must:

  • Put your engine in neutral and allow whales to pass if needed
  • Always remain at least 100 yards from the whales
  • Never pursue, chase, or encircle the whales
  • Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes or less

These rules help minimize disturbance to the whales during this critical time in their migration and breeding. Prolonged engine noise and vessel presence can disrupt their behaviors.

In-water Whale Encounters

Swimming with humpback whales is prohibited by federal and state laws. But spinner dolphins often rest close to shore, attracting swimmers. If you enter the water near these dolphins you must:

  • Not pursue or touch the dolphins
  • Refrain from splashing or making loud noises
  • Keep at least 50 yards away from resting groups

This allows the dolphins to rest without unnecessary disruption. Any in-water activity should put the well-being of the marine mammals first.

Using Drones or Aircraft

The use aerial vehicles around marine mammals is restricted. This includes:

  • Drones
  • Helicopters
  • Airplanes

You must stay at least 1,000 feet above sea level when operating these vehicles near whales or dolphins. This prevents alarming them with strange shapes and loud noises overhead.

Fines and Penalties

Violating whale and dolphin viewing guidelines in Hawaii can result in fines up to $40,000 and even jail time! So it crucial to give these animals space and follow the rules. Ultimately, we want sustainably managed whale watching so future generations can enjoy respectful encounters.

For more info, visit the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources website.

Interesting Facts About Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are one of the most remarkable creatures in Hawaii’s waters. Here are some fascinating facts about these gentle giants:

Migration Marvels

Humpback whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. They travel over 3,000 miles between their feeding grounds in Alaska and breeding grounds in Hawaii. This epic journey takes 2-3 months each way!

Acrobatic Displays

Male humpback whales perform elaborate courtship routines to attract females. They breach (leap out of the water), lobtail (lift their flukes out of the water before crashing back down), and slap the surface with their long pectoral fins and tails.

Complex Songs

Humpback whales are famous for their haunting, complex songs. The songs can last up to 30 minutes. Each population has its own version of the song, which changes gradually over time in a cultural transmission.

Gentle Protectors

Female humpbacks are very protective mothers. They will fiercely guard their calves from predators like sharks and killer whales. The calves drink up to 100 gallons of nutritious milk every day!

Threats They Face

Due to commercial whaling, humpback whales were once endangered with only 10,000 left globally. Their numbers have increased since whaling bans, but they still face threats from pollution, habitat loss, entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and climate change.

We have so much more to learn about these amazing leviathans. Seeing them up close in Hawaii is an experience you will never forget!


We hope this outline has given you a comprehensive overview of the different whale species found in Hawaiian waters, especially the North Pacific humpback whales that migrate there each winter to mate, give birth, and nurse their calves.

Seeing these magnificent, gentle giants in their natural habitat is an unforgettable experience. If you plan to go whale watching during your Hawaii vacation, be sure to follow all guidelines and regulations to keep these amazing animals safe.

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