The Beginner’s Guide to Whale Watching in Maui Hawaii

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Whale watching Westin Ka'anapali Maui

I have finally reached the last stop on Round the World #3 and I’m not sure I could have chosen a more beautiful spot.

I got off to a slow start here on Maui. Truth be told, I think the jetlag from Vietnam finally caught up with me this week.

Read More: Hanoi & Halong Bay Vietnam

I’ve been spending a lot of time relaxing and just generally lounging around near the beach watching the daily parade of humpback whales migrating by just offshore.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

It’s a rough life, right?

But enough about my jetlag and general lack of ambition, let’s begin at the beginning.

The beauty of Maui

Though I have been to Hawaii a number of times (most frequently to run the Honolulu Marathon), this is my first trip to Maui. Rumor has it, it’s whale season and I could not be more excited.

Read More: Eat, Pray, RUN: A Honolulu Marathon Diary

On the 45-minute cab ride from the airport to Ka’anapali, I am struck by the amazing beauty of this island. From the spectacular lush green mountains to the royal blue waters surrounding it, Maui is quite a welcome sight for this weary traveler.

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The landscape of Maui

Maui has been named the #1 island in the world in Conde Nast Traveler magazine more than a dozen times and with good reason.

But it’s not just the physical beauty of the island that is the draw. 

Whale season in Maui

Every year, from December until April, Maui’s favorite wintertime visitors are in residence. 

Humpback whales by the thousands migrate from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm and sheltered waters of the Hawaiian Islands.

Whale Watching in Maui Hawaii

While in the Maui area the whales mate, nurse their newborn calves, and thrill locals and tourists alike with their playfulness and acrobatics. 

Once hunted to near-extinction, these magnificent marine mammals are now one of the worldwide conservation movement’s major success stories.

Now, I knew Hawaii had whales at certain times of the year. But I guess I’ve never been on the right island at the right time of year to see them. 

And I had NO idea just how many whales we were talking about here.

Whale spotting 101

On the cab ride from the airport, as we wind our way along the shoreline to Ka’anapali, my cab driver encourages me to keep my eyes on the water for whale sightings. He says he usually sees 4 or 5 every day along this drive. 

I’m skeptical as I scan the calm water. They can’t be this close to shore, can they? But after just a few minutes of diligent observation, I am rewarded with the splash of a whale tail off in the distance. 

How cool is that!?

On the rest of the drive, I have four more whale sightings and I am hooked. I always thought whale-watching involved vomit-inducing open water boat trips. But here on Maui, all you have to do is look out at the water.

From the beach, your hotel room, your car, wherever. 

They are literally everywhere.

Whale watching Westin Ka'anapali Maui
A sunset whale show from the Westin Ka’anapali

I have to admit that for the next few days I am perfectly happy to simply occupy a lounge chair on the beach of my hotel, the beautiful Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Villas Resort.

I read a book while continuously scanning the water for whale “spray.”

This is a seriously addictive pastime.

The charm of Lahaina

In the evenings, I head into downtown Lahaina, the former Royal capital of the Hawaiian Islands.

Lahaina Maui Hawaii
Lahaina, Maui

Historically a whaling village, today’s Lahaina is the charming, ocean-front hub of Maui. The town is home to lots of shopping options and tons of restaurants with million-dollar views.

I stroll the quaint shops of Front Street and chose a different seaside restaurant each night for dinner with a sunset view.

Lahaina Maui Sunset
Restaurant sunset views from Lahaina

It is easy to get caught up in the laid-back Maui lifestyle over here and be unmotivated to do anything that requires actual effort. 

Beach. Whales. Sunset. Repeat.

Snorkeling the Molokini Crater

As the end of my week-long stay nears, I get my act together and book a snorkeling and whale watching trip. OK, technically it’s just billed as a snorkeling trip but any trip involving a boat this time of year doubles as a whale watching trip in Maui.

Molokini is an eyebrow-shaped volcanic crater partially submerged just a few miles off Maui’s shore. This island marine sanctuary is known for some of the world’s best snorkeling thanks to the unsurpassed clarity of the water.

The weather is perfect today and the trip on a comfortable catamaran turns out to be excellent. The amount of underwater life in Molokini’s thriving coral reef is truly outstanding. There’s a good reason this is one of Maui’s most popular day trips!

Whale Watching in Maui – up close & personal

While the Molokini trip is awesome, we only see a few whales. And they were a good distance away.

So as my week on Maui draws to a close, I decide it’s time to see what real whale watching in Maui is all about. I’ve been stalking them from shore all week and it’s time to up my game.

I head into Lahaina in search of a whale watching trip on a small boat that allows passengers to get up close and personal.

Luckily, I score a seat on a raft getting ready to head out now!

Why chose a small boat?

The best trips for whale watching in Maui are on smaller rafts holding about 30 people. There are also trips on larger boats but the rafts allow you to get so much closer to the whales. Plus you don’t have to fight with 100 other tourists to get a good picture.

It’s another gorgeous day as we board the raft in Lahaina and head out

Once out on open water, we immediately locate what our guide called a “competitive group” of whales out toward the island of Lanai. A competitive group includes several males fighting it out for the attention of the lone female in the group.

The “Bachelorette” show for whales, if you will.

The male whales lunge and bump into each other as they swim along and it can be quite exciting to watch.

Whale watching Maui Hawaii
Whales off the coast of Maui

Our raft glides alongside the group as it moves and I am amazed at how close we are able to get. They are just mesmerizing to watch as they glide through the sea and shoot water out of their blowholes.

Being this close to the whales is probably one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. I can’t believe I almost left Maui without doing this!

whale watching maui hawaii small boat
Aboard the raft in calm waters off the coast of Maui

Unfortunately, none of the whales ever execute a full breach all the way out of the water. (But luckily I did catch that from the hotel a few days ago.)

Last day on Maui

Tomorrow, sadly it’s time to head back to the airport for the short 20-minute flight to Honolulu. I’ll spend one last night there before heading home and back to reality. Sigh…

It’s been another truly incredible trip around the world, capped off by some pretty fantastic whale watching in Maui. Thanks to everyone for following along with me once again this year!

I have no doubt there will be a Round the World #4 and you can bet I’ll start planning a little earlier next year!

Til next time…

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