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Humpbacks 101: How to Enjoy Humpback Whales in Maui

Author: Evan Pascual

There’s arguably no better place in the world to see humpback whales than Maui. Thousands of North Pacific humpback mothers, calves, and males are completing the first leg of their 6,000-mile, round-trip migration from Alaska to Hawai‘i. Humpback activity is heating up in Maui Nui with peak season quickly approaching, and we’re here to help you make the most of the 2020 whale season!

Humpback Whale Mom and Calf, Mother's Day

The Hawaiian Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is situated just beyond the Maui Ocean Center. Established in 1992 to protect humpbacks for their long-term recovery, the Sanctuary protects critical habitats throughout the Hawaiian Islands. In Maui Nui, it stretches from shore to the 100-fathom isobath (600ft). Its calm and shallow waters provide a safe place for mother humpbacks to nurse their young while fierce competitions between males erupt the ocean’s surface with dramatic displays and acrobatic maneuvers.

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One of the greatest aspects of Maui’s humpback season is accessibility. Whale watch tours departing from harbors in Kihei, Ma‘alaea, and Lahaina will put you in proximity to the whales. During recreational activities, like kayaking and stand up paddling, it’s not uncommon to encounter whales while on the water. Snorkeling inshore or scuba diving in the deep will put you within earshot of dramatic humpback whale symphonies. However you choose to see the humpbacks on the water, never approach, chase, or harass the whales and remember that federal regulation prohibits approaching humpbacks by any means within 100 yards.

Whale watch tours are popular but don’t overlook the benefits of watching from shore. Any stretch of coastline spanning from West to South Maui provides opportunities to see humpbacks. Hangout, BBQ, and enjoy the beautiful hues of the Pacific Ocean with humpback whale activity. Binoculars are handy for a closer look, but humpbacks are very much visible from shore. Although whales can be seen while commuting along Maui’s coastal highways, please remember to drive safely and not be distracted with whale watching. You can find beaches, parking lots, and designated areas like the Pali Lookout to pull over and watch humpbacks safely.

Humpbacks of hawaii exhibit & Sphere

And for a new and unique experience, you can visit us at the Maui Ocean Center to see the world’s first virtual encounter with Hawai‘i’s humpbacks! Our Humpbacks of Hawai‘i Exhibit & Sphere provides a virtual, immersive experience that takes you underwater for an unforgettable encounter with life-sized humpbacks. You can also learn more about Hawai‘i’s whales at NOAA’s Sanctuary Visitor Center and the Lahaina Heritage Museum.

When whale watching, keep a lookout for these common behaviors:

  • A “fluke up dive” occurs when a humpback lifts its tail out of the water to commence a deep dive.
  • “Pec slaps” are easy to identify by a long, 15ft pectoral fin repeatedly slapping the ocean’s surface.
  • “Blows” happen when a humpback exhales, producing a tall, misty spray of moist air and mucus.
  • Competing males exhibit aggressive behavior like “tail slapping” and “head lunges”.
  • A “peduncle throw” utilizes the muscular area where the tail fluke connects with the body, thrown aggressively in a sideward motion.
  • Humpbacks are also curious creatures, and will raise their head vertically above the water to look around – this is called “spy hopping”.
  • And lastly, arguably everyone’s favorite, is the “breach”. Humpbacks project themselves out of the water with sheer power, creating an unmistakable splash and resounding boom upon impacting the surface of the ocean.

Whether whale watching from shore or sea, please do so responsibly and safely in the best interest of you, the whales, and the people around you. These majestic creatures are still federally protected and command our utmost respect and admiration. Have your camera ready and enjoy!


Author Evan Pascual, Marketing & Public Relations Coordinator

Written by Evan Pascual. “Ka Mo‘olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column written by Maui Ocean Center and published in The Maui News.

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