Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii with hopes of spotting whales, timing is everything. Hawaii’s whale watching season offers a front-row view as thousands of humpback whales make their annual migration to the warm and protected waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands each winter to mate, give birth, and nurse their young.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the peak whale watching season in Hawaii runs from early December through early May, with the most active months being January through March when thousands of humpback whales can be spotted in Hawaiian waters.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about Hawaii’s whale season including the best times to spot whales, top spots for whale watching, what types of whale behaviors you may witness, whale watching tour options, guidelines for responsible viewing, and much more to help you have an unforgettable whale watching experience in Hawaii.

An Overview of Hawaii’s Whale Season

Hawaii’s whale season is an amazing natural spectacle that attracts visitors from around the world. During the winter months, thousands of gentle giant humpback whales make the long journey from their feeding grounds in Alaska to mate and give birth in Hawaii’s warm, sheltered waters.

Witnessing these incredible creatures in their natural habitat is an unforgettable experience. Here is everything you need to know about when, why, and how many whales visit the Hawaiian islands each winter.

When Does Whale Season Start and End in Hawaii

The official humpback whale season in Hawaii runs from November through May, with peak sighting months typically being January through March. According to recent data from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (, the first whales usually start arriving in late November.

More whales follow in December when the migration is in full swing. Whale counts top out between January and March when mating activity is at its highest. The migration starts slowing down in April as some whales begin their return to Alaska.

However, stragglers often linger in Hawaii through May before making their long journey back north.

Why Do Whales Migrate to Hawaii Each Winter

Humpback whales migrate over 3,000 miles from Alaska to Hawaii each winter for mating and birthing in the warm, sheltered waters surrounding the islands. Pregnant females make the journey to give birth in Hawaii’s calm waters, allowing newborn calves to grow strong without the threat of rough northern seas or predators like killer whales.

Males also migrate to compete for female attention in Hawaii’s tropical breeding grounds through singing, breaching, and other courtship behavior.

In addition to ideal birthing conditions, Hawaii offers nutrient-rich waters where pregnant and nursing whales can build up fat stores for the long journey back to Alaska. The warm water likely also aids the whales’ reproductive health and success.

After spending 2 to 3 months mating and birthing in Hawaii, the nutrition-rich waters prepare the whales for their long migration back to Alaska’s feeding grounds.

How Many Whales Come to Hawaii

An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales make the annual pilgrimage from Alaska to Hawaii’s waters each winter. Current population figures indicate there are around 22,000 total North Pacific humpbacks, meaning Hawaii hosts nearly half the entire population every year (

Population Estimate ~22,000 North Pacific humpbacks
Annual Migration Estimate 10,000 – 12,000 whales
Peak Months January – March

The most popular whale watching areas surround the islands of Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. However, whales can be spotted from any island shoreline. Kayaking, boating, or snorkeling usually provide the best chance to get up close with these impressive cetaceans.

Peak Times to See Whales in Hawaii

Early Season Whale Activity (November-December)

The first North Pacific humpback whales begin to arrive in Hawaiian waters in early November, though sightings are still sporadic at this point. These early arrivals are usually young adult males looking to establish their spot before the females arrive.

During late November to early December, whale sightings gradually increase as more adults and mother/calf pairs make the long 3,500 mile migration down from Alaska to the warm, calm waters of the Hawaiian islands to mate, give birth, and nurse their young.

The best early season spots to see the whales are along west and northwest facing shores like the Waianae Coast of Oahu. Use caution during this period, as new mother/calf pairs can be skittish.

Height of Whale Season (January-March)

During the peak months of January, February and March, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales converge inside Hawaii’s waters. Nearly all major whale watching tours and boat operators run daily tours during this period to match the high demand.

This is the best chance for visitors to have an exceptionally high likelihood of spotting whales, sometimes from right offshore. Groups of adult males can be seen demonstrating their strength and virility in competition groups, while mothers focus on nursing their new calves.

Some of the most popular places include:

  • Maalaea Bay between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai
  • Auau Channel between Maui and Lanai
  • Waters off the Kona Coast on the Kona side of Hawaii’s Big Island
  • Waters between Maui, Molokai, and Kahoolawe
  • During the peak, humpbacks are extremely active – breaching, pec slapping, lob tailing, spy hopping, and showing off elaborate tail displays. This is the best chance to witness the amazing behaviors of these giant creatures.

    Late Season Sightings (April-May)

    As warmer weather arrives in Alaska around April, signaling the start of the feeding season, most whales begin their long journey northwest back to subarctic feeding grounds rich in krill and small fish. By May, over 90% of whales have typically departed Hawaiian waters.

    However, stragglers often remain, particularly newly born calves who are still getting big and strong enough for the long swim back. Spotting these late-season gentled giants can produce rewarding encounters in the protected bays and inlets along calm leeward coasts.

    Use care not to disturb mom/calf pairs at this vulnerable stage. While sightings drop off significantly after mid-April, dedicated whale watching tours often still run during this period and may even offer discounts compared to peak season prices.

    The Best Spots for Whale Watching in Hawaii


    Maui is one of the best islands in Hawaii for whale watching. Each winter, thousands of humpback whales migrate to the warm waters off Maui to mate and give birth. The most popular place on Maui to spot whales is along the western and southwestern shores.

    Towns like Lahaina, Maalaea, Kihei, and Wailea offer many excellent vantage points. Numerous whale watching cruises and tours depart from Maalaea Harbor and Lahaina Harbor. These tours take visitors out onto the water to get up close views of the majestic marine mammals breaching and slapping their tails.

    Shoreline lookouts like McGregor Point, Papawai Point, and Makena Landing also provide great land-based whale watching. The peak season for sightings runs from January through March.


    Oahu offers excellent opportunities for spotting migrating humpback whales between December and April. Some of the top places to see whales from shore on Oahu’s south shore include Hanauma Bay, Makapuu Point, Sandy Beach, and Kaena Point.

    Taking a whale watching cruise is also a wonderful way to get out on the water with a higher chance of sightings. Many cruises depart from Honolulu Harbor, Waikiki, Kewalo Basin, and the North Shore. Tours typically head to the south and west sides of the island.

    Watching for spouts along the horizon, then waiting for the whales’ huge tails to emerge or seeing them leaping clear out of the blue Pacific waters makes for an unforgettable experience.


    Kauai’s spectacular shoreline and waters offer prime whale watching from mid-December through mid-April each year. Some of the best vantage points are Poipu Beach, Salt Pond Beach, Lydgate Beach Park, Kilauea Lighthouse, and Polihale State Park.

    Whale watching cruises launching from Port Allen and Nawiliwili Harbor provide visitors the unique chance to get out on the water with the whales. Knowledgeable naturalists narrate the trips, providing fascinating facts about the whales and their yearly migrations.

    Expect to potentially see behaviors like breaching, tail slapping, flipper slapping, and pec slapping on these tours. Nothing beats witnessing 30-ton humpbacks launching their massive bodies out of the sea.

    Hawaii Island

    The Big Island lives up to its name when it comes to whale watching opportunities. Major hot spots include Waipio Valley Lookout, Puako, Hapuna Beach State Park, and Mauna Kea Beach. Shoreline vistas offer stunning backdrops combined with excellent sightings of whales offshore.

    Whale watching cruises depart from Honokohau Harbor, giving visitors a special chance to have encounters with these gentle ocean giants. The waters off the Kohala Coast host the majority of sightings, though whales may be spotted island-wide.

    Peak months for whale watching are January, February, and March when the highest numbers of whales converge here. Breaching humpbacks always incite thrilled shouts and applause from awestruck spectators.

    Types of Whale Behaviors in Hawaii


    Breaching, when a whale jumps partially or fully out of the water, is one of the most spectacular whale behaviors in Hawaii. This acrobatic display is thought to be a form of communication or play among humpback whales.

    According to whale researchers, about one third of humpback whale groups breach during their time in Hawaii. Some enthusiastic individuals can perform over a dozen breaches in a row!

    Pec Slapping

    Pec slapping occurs when a whale repeatedly slaps the water with its pectoral fin or tail. The sound can be heard from over a mile away! Scientists believe pec slapping is a form of communication. Male humpbacks often pec slap to compete for female attention during the breeding season in Hawaii.

    This mighty display asserts dominance and advertises the male’s fitness.


    Spyhopping is when a whale comes vertically out of the water to “spy” on its surroundings, exposing its eyes and head above the surface. Humpbacks and other whale species do this to view their environment and assess threats.

    According to recent wildlife surveys, over 25% of whale groups spotted in Hawaii spyhop during whale watching tours. Some researchers believe spyhopping may also be used to communicate or as a play behavior.

    Lunge Feeding

    During lunge feeding, rorqual whales such as blues, fins and humpbacks accelerate vertically through a bait ball or swarm of fish, gulping a giant mouthful of water and fish. Lunge feeding in Hawaii generally occurs when dense schools of prey aggregate seasonally.

    According to Pacific Whale Foundation researchers, humpback whales can consume up to 3,000 lbs of food per day using this spectacular foraging strategy!


    Logging refers to extended periods of resting or sleeping at the surface of the water. When logging, whales remain nearly motionless in a vertical or horizontal position, allowing them to sleep half their brain at a time. Researchers have recorded humpback whales logging for over 30 minutes straight!

    Logging often occurs after large feeding events when the whales are full and content. This important rest phase allows whales to digest their prey and regain energy.

    Whale Watching Tours in Hawaii

    Boat Tours

    Boat tours are one of the most popular ways to go whale watching in Hawaii. Tour operators use large catamarans or smaller zodiac rafts to take visitors out into the ocean for several hours of whale spotting. These tours depart from ports all over the islands like Lahaina, Maui and Honolulu, Oahu.

    Some key advantages of boat tours are:

    • Get far offshore for better whale sightings
    • More stable viewing platform than small rafts
    • Often have onboard naturalists to explain the whale activity

    According to, over 21,000 humpback whales make the journey to Hawaii each winter. On a boat tour, you’ll likely spot whales breaching, flipper slapping, or tail lobbing. You may even witness some friendly whale behaviors like the spectacular show they put on during courtship.

    Raft Tours

    For visitors who prefer a more adventurous whale watching experience, raft tours involve exploring the ocean in a small inflatable motorized raft. With these intimate and nimble watercraft, raft captains can maneuver quite close to the whales once spotted.

    Benefits of rafting tours include:

    • Get very close to breachings and other surface activity
    • Hold fewer passengers than larger boats
    • Capable captains well-versed in whale behavior

    According to recent statistics from the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, over 10,000 humpback whales visited Hawaiian waters this past season alone. Raft tours are ideal for capturing photos and videos of these impressive marine mammals in action.

    Kayak Tours

    For whale watchers who also enjoy paddling, kayak tours provide an eco-friendly way to spot whales along Hawaii’s coast. Guided trips often launch from secluded beaches before venturing offshore into whale territory.

    Since kayaks sit low on the water, even a single whale sighting becomes quite the thrill.

    Top reasons to book a kayak whale watching tour:

    • Self-powered way to approach whales directly
    • Launch sites less crowded than busy harbors
    • Small group sizes, usually less than 20 people

    The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary strongly promotes responsible whale watching from all kinds of vessels, including human-powered ones. Always give adequate space, avoid abrupt movements, and ensure female whales nursing their calves remain undisturbed.

    Shore-Based Whale Watching

    The most affordable and accessible way to spot humpback whales doesn’t even require a boat! Simply post up at an oceanside lookout spot along Hawaii’s shoreline. Bring some binoculars and sun protection and scan the horizon for those telltale puffs from a whale’s blowhole.

    Why opt for land-based whale watching?

    • Free and open to everyone
    • Set your own schedule
    • Plenty of scenic lookouts to choose from

    According to long-time Maui residents, some favorite shoreline whale watching spots include Papawai Point Lookout, McGregor Point, and Lipoa Point. Just use caution near cliff edges and give whales adequate space if they approach the rocks.

    Enjoy the show nature puts on right off Hawaii’s stunning shores!

    Whale Watching Guidelines and Regulations

    Minimum Approach Distances

    Federal law mandates that there must be a distance of at least 100 yards maintained between any person or vessel and a humpback whale in Hawaii. This regulation is important to prevent disruption of the whales’ natural behaviors.

    Whale watching tours are required to use caution, move at a slow safe speed when near whales, and never pursue, surround or encircle them. Fines for violating this distance rule can be up to $11,000.

    Be Cautious and Respectful

    When viewing humpback whales in their natural habitat, it is essential that humans act responsibly by being cautious, quiet, and respectful. Loud noises above 180 decibels can disrupt whale communication and behavior, so refrain from revving boat engines, yelling, or making disruptive sounds.

    Whales are wild animals that should be admired from a distance and treated humanely at all times.

    Report Violations or Harassment

    If you witness whales being harassed or see violations of approach distance rules, promptly report the incident. Record details like vessel/person description, location, video/photos if safely possible. Call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 or file an online report.

    Responsible whale watching is vital so future generations can enjoy witnessing these amazing creatures.

    To learn more about Hawaii’s whale watching guidelines, consult Department of Land and Natural Resources and NOAA Fisheries. Following regulations preserves natural behaviors and safeguards endangered whales.


    We hope this guide gives you a good overview of what to expect during Hawaii’s annual whale season. As thousands of gentle giants return to breed in Hawaii’s warm protected waters, it creates one of nature’s most remarkable displays.

    Witnessing these incredible mammals in their natural habitat is the experience of a lifetime. By planning your Hawaii vacation during peak season and following responsible whale watching guidelines, you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable sightings and memories.

    Don’t miss your opportunity to have an eye-to-eye encounter with one of the world’s most magnificent creatures in one of the world’s most beautiful places!

    Sharing is caring!

    Similar Posts