Witness one of the World’s Great Migrations
By Kathy Englert
Every fall Mauians celebrate the return of the Humpback Whales. These magnificent creatures spend their summers in the cold waters of the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans and journey thousands of miles through open ocean each fall to winter in the tropical waters around Hawaii. The calm waters along South Maui are especially popular with winter visitors, be they cetacean or human.
While in Maui the whales calve and court, but they don’t eat. Our beautiful clear waters are ideal for coral and for people but do not support the large plankton and krill populations the whales need. As the calves (baby whales) grow they imitate the adult whales much the way toddlers imitate their parents. Even though the calves are about the size of a van, there is something adorable in watching them practice slapping the surface of the water with their fins over and over until they’ve got it just right.
Visitors to Maui may not even realize all of the ways to enjoy whale watching. There are tours on large, comfortable catamarans, like those with the Pacific Whale Foundation. These tours often include cocktails and pupus, some even include dinner or a snorkeling tour of one of the local reefs. These tours can be specially chartered for larger groups or you can just buy tickets for one of the regularly scheduled tours. Most larger tour boats depart from the harbors in Maalaea or Lahaina.
There are also companies which offer small craft whale watch tours. These tours may offer beverages as part of the tour or not. Many of these depart from Lahaina Harbor, but some even leave from the Kihei boat ramp. If you prefer to be right down on the water with the wind whipping through your hair then one of these “zodiac” tours (so called because many tours use Zodiac inflatable pontoon boats) might be just what you’re looking for.
For an aerial view of these gentle giants, try a helicopter tour. From above, in calm water, you can see entire whales as they swim near the surface. From this view one realizes how truly massive Humpback whales are.
However, ask a local their favorite way to whale watch and you’re likely to get one of two answers.
Many people will tell you that just sitting on the beach or anywhere with an ocean view for an hour is a great way to whale watch. I have friends who “forget” their lunch break is over as they sit outside and watch for spouts and breaches.
Others will tell you that the very best way is to head out onto the water in a kayak or on a paddle board. These small, quiet watercraft are unlikely to disturb the whales, in fact, sometimes they come right up, roll on their side, and look at you eye to eye. These adventurous whale watchers are sure to see Maui’s ocean life in a very special way.
Keep in mind the laws protecting these animals apply to all of these encounters: do not pursue the whales, do not approach within 100 yards, and stop powered motion of the craft if a whale approaches. These rules help guarantee that future visitors will enjoy seeing the Humpbacks play and swim in Maui’s waters for years to come.