Winter is the best time of year to spot humpback whales in Hawaii. Every year, usually starting around December, the whales come in droves from the Gulf of Alaska, where they spend the summer feasting on fish. Like any sensible creatures, they come to escape the cold for warmer water where they mate and birth and rear their young. They usually hang in Hawaii through April, then head back north to eat.
Naturally, this means the months of January, February, and March comprise prime time for watching these whales in the wild.
While the protected waters between Maui and Lanai are the single best spot to glimpse these leviathans doing their thing, the water on the leeward side of Oahu is pretty good for whale-watching, too. Here, then, in no particular order, are some of my favorite options for seeing whales on Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous island.
Not every vessel at Atlantis is, in fact, a submarine. The vessel that pilots take past Diamond Head to look for humpbacks actually is a catamaran with special technology that provides a super-smooth ride. On the way out, Atlantis Naturalists share insightful information on the humpback whale’s behavior and biology. Once you come upon whales, captains keep their distance and turn the boat so passengers on every side can see.
For grownups, this array of perspectives is a real treat. For kids, the ability to join the Keiki Program is something worth excitement, too. Atlantis even has a whale-watch guarantee: If an Atlantis Naturalist does not spot a whale during the cruise, guests are given a complimentary return whale watch cruise. (Before you start thinking this is a good deal; there are so many whales, it rarely happens.)
While other cruises incorporate whale-watching, snorkeling and general sightseeing, tours on Hawaii Nautical are dedicated just to whale-watching. The outfitter leaves from two different destinations—Waikiki and West Oahu—and offers sailing or motoring excursions on giant catamarans. All boats offer sodas and snacks, and sightings are guaranteed.
North Shore Catamaran
Whale-watch passengers also can go out on catamarans through North Shore Catamaran charters. This company is renowned for offering personalized attention, uncrowded boats, and informative crews. Typically, North Shore trips have no more than one other group per trip, giving you an incredibly intimate experience with the whales. The small-group setting also enables adventurers to get more one-on-one time with crew members, making it seem as if the crew comprises a team of personal tour guides.
As the name of this outfitter implies, the boats depart from the North Shore—Haleiwa, to be exact. This means you might spot Hawaiian Monk Seals and/or surfers, too.
Viewfinder Tip: Be sure to apply sunscreen to your face before heading out on a whale-watch. The sun’s rays bounce off the ocean and can burn your skin if you’re not prepared.
Star of Honolulu
Finally, though it’s not a catamaran, the Star of Honolulu boasts that it offers the most stable (read: least likely to cause seasickness) vessel on Oahu for whale-watching. The boat, which is more like a small cruise ship than a whale-watch ship, also has a 60-foot-high observation deck (which is good for spotting at distance) and four walk-around decks (good for panoramic perspective). There’s even an aft deck that hangs out over the back of the boat so you can look straight down (in case there are dolphins swimming in the wake).
As the father of three young kids, I also like the “Star” because one child gets on board for free with each paying adult. That means when the five of us go, we only have to pay for two adults and one child. It also means we have more money to spend on souvenirs at the end of the trip.
Whichever whale-watch outfitter you choose to see whales near Oahu, remember to bring some backup supplies just in case something unforeseen might happen. Often these supplies include chap stick, swim trunks, a backup phone battery, and snacks. Take it from one who has been there and done this before—you never can be too prepared for a day on the water.
Where are your favorite places in the world to watch whales?
Photos courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority and shot by Tor Johnson.