Hawaii’s best places to spot humpback whales from the shore

Hawaii’s best places to spot humpback whales from the shore

Posted by Hawaiian Isles on 1/11/2019 to Best of Hawaii
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Hawaii Whale Watching From The Shore

Hawaii’s best places to spot humpback whales from shoreline locations on each of the Hawaiian Islands

Just as our warm weather and beautiful Pacific Ocean draw visitors from across the globe, these conditions also make the Hawaiian Islands a favorite destination for kohola, the Hawaiian word for humpback whales.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary shelters humpbacks every winter as they breed and calve their young in the waters of Hawaii. Photo Credit: Ed Lyman/NOAA Permit #14682

Each fall, North Pacific Humpback Whales leave their frigid home in the Gulf of Alaska to migrate for up to eight weeks for a warm, tropical winter home in the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, this annual round trip journey of some 6,000 miles is considered one of the longest made by any mammal. Between December and May (January and February are considered prime months), these gentle giants can be spotted frolicking offshore during rituals of mating, giving birth and nurturing calves.

While seasonal whale watching cruises are a favorite activity among visitors and even locals, you can also spot these marvels from lots of shoreline locations that are easily accessible and absolutely FREE!

Best Shoreline Whale Watching Spots In Hawaii

Volunteers armed with binoculars and clipboards will help Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary staff count and record whale behaviors from the shores of Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. Photo Credit: Bruce Parsil/NOAA

Despite their size, humpback whales are graceful acrobats. By exercising patience (meaning keep your eyes on the horizon and resist checking your phone), you may witness the ultimate humpback action of breaching, an amazing feat where a whale propels its body out of the water and lands on its side with a spectacular splash.

Maui Whale Watching, Surface Sightings Map

The shallow Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai is considered one of the best whale watching destinations in the world. The best visibility runs along Maui’s west shore, from Kapalua on the northern end to Wailea on the southern end.

Oahu Whale Watching, Surface Sightings Map

On Oahu, humpbacks are easier to spot on the north shore from Haleiwa to Kahuku and southeastern shore from Koko Head to Makapuu.

Kauai Whale Watching, Surface Sightings Map

While Kauai offers a wide range of whale viewing opportunities, your best shot is along the southwest shore running from Waimea to Polihale State Park and along the North Shore to Hanalei and Kilauea. Whales are also often spotted off Poipu on the south shore and Kapaa on the east shore.

Island of Hawaii Whale Watching, Surface Sightings Map

On the Island of Hawaii, whales are most often spotted from Kailua-Kona and up the western coast to Kapaau on the north shore with the most productive area being along the Kohala Coast. If you’re on the eastern shore, check Hilo Bay.

Watch for these whale behaviors


An explosive exhale through a whale’s blowhole as it rises to the surface. The spout can reach as high as 20 feet. This is first thing to look for when trying to locate a pod of whales, as it’s typically the most frequent and easily spotted behavior. Humpback whales actually have two blowholes, one for each of its huge lungs. Adults will typically blow every 10 to 15 minutes, with calves blowing every 3 to 5 minutes.   


Photo Credit: A. Debich/NOAA, under NOAA Permit #15240

A whale launching itself out of the water and falling back with a massive splash.Talk about acrobatics! Here, a humpback whale breaches in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Humpback whales can weigh 40 tons, so clearing the water like this is an impressive feat! Scientists aren’t 100% sure why humpback whales breach. They’re more likely to breach when they are in groups, suggesting that it is a non-verbal form of communication or a form of play. (Or maybe it’s just the whale’s way of saying Aloha!)

Pectoral Slaps

Photo Credit: Ed Lyman/NOAA Permit #15240

Fins up if you love whales! Pectoral Slaps is the slapping of a whale’s fin against the water’s surface. Humpback whales like this one are protected by many of your national marine sanctuaries, including Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii.

Tail Slapping/Fluking

A whale raising its tail flukes out of water and slapping them forcefully on the surface of the water. Photo Credit: Ed Lyman/NOAA, under NOAA permit #15240


The whale lifts its giant head up and out of the water so it can take a look around and see what’s going on above the surface. Photo Credit: Dan S. Salden/NOAA

Getting Involved

Volunteers in national marine sanctuaries participate in a wide variety of activities including diving, whale identification and beach cleanups. These volunteers are involved in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation's Sanctuary Ocean Count, which offers the community a chance to monitor humpback whales from the shores of Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai. (Photo Credit: Paul Wong/NOAA)

Maui’s Great Whale Count brings volunteers together to count whales from shore as part of a long-term survey of humpback whales in Hawaii. There are 12 survey sites along the shoreline of Maui, offering a chance to spend time at a favorite spot or to explore a new part of the island. The event takes place during the annual Maui Whale Festival (MauiWhaleFestival.org). Upcoming dates for these Saturday events are Jan. 26, Feb. 23 and March 30.

Scheduled for the same dates, the Sanctuary Ocean Count provides a snapshot of humpback sightings from Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island shorelines as participants tally counts and document the whales’ surface behavior. A similar effort is also done on Maui with the Pacific Whale Foundation. Check OceanCount.org for details.

What to Bring

Whether you’re participating in a count or simply setting out for a shoreline spotting, check the daily weather report before heading out. Clear skies provide optimal conditions when trying to spot humpbacks from the shore.  

Also, bring a hat, sunblock, polarized sunglasses, water, snacks, and binoculars or a spotting scope. It’s easier to spot a whale with your naked eyes, and then zero in with binoculars or a spotting scope for a better view. As for cameras, a zoom lens optimizes capturing the action. (Don't forget to bring a Thermos full of Hawaiian Isles Kona Coffee!)

12 Fun Facts about Humpback Whales

Impress your friends by sharing 12 fascinating facts about these remarkable cetaceans.

1)    These warm-blooded marine mammals actually evolved from land mammals 50 million years ago.

2)    Males range from 40 to 52 feet and weigh up to 45 tons, with females slightly longer and heavier.

3)    Like other mammals, humpbacks have hair! Thought to be a sensory function, stiff hairs come out of the top of tubercles, or large bumps on the lower jaw and head.

4)    With eyes the size of grapefruits, humpbacks have excellent vision.

5)    Humpbacks fast during their migration by living off fat they store during their feeding season.

6)    A humpback’s cruising speed is 3.5 to 5.7 mph, although they can ramp it up to 10 to 11.5 mph when being chased.

7)    During mating season, males produce whale songs that consist of a series of repeating patterns that gradually change over time. No female has ever been heard or seen singing.

8)    You can sometimes hear the whales singing under water when they're near. You just need to stay very still and listen closely while you're below the surface!

9)    Females give birth every 2 to 3 years, with the gestation period lasting 11 to 12 months.

10)    Born at 13 feet long and 1 ton in weight, calves drink nearly 600 gallons of milk per day.

11)    On average, adults surface every 7 to 15 minutes to breathe, but can remain submerged for up to 45 minutes. Calves must rise to the surface every 3 to 5 minutes.

12)    Humpbacks can live from 50 to 100 years of age.

We hope you enjoyed our little taste of Aloha! If you ever have any questions or story ideas, please e-mail us at [email protected]!


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