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Whale Watching on the Big Island

Every year between the months of December and May, visitors to Hawaiʻi’s shores are privy to some impressive views thanks to thousands of humpback whales that make the pilgrimage to the Hawaiian Islands from the Gulf of Alaska.

The once dwindling humpback whale population now numbers more than 21,000. The whales come to Hawaiʻi to mate and birth their young, enjoying the warm tropical waters, pristine underwater visibility and the lack of natural predators.

Scientists estimate that nearly two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population returns to Hawaiʻi every year.

And throughout the island chain, the humpback, known in Hawaiian as “kohalā,” make a spectacular appearance.
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These whales spend their day playing offshore — breaching, lunging, and tail slapping the water. Their acrobatic skills are visible to beachgoers on both sides of the Big Island (best seen from the coastline with binoculars), but the best way to fathom the beauty and power of the fifth largest whale species in the world is to be out on the open ocean yourself.
Schedule a tour or charter a boat with knowledgeable guides who can take you to the best spots. (And if you’re out on the open ocean without a guide, remember to never swim near or try to touch a whale.)While the humpback whales are in Hawaiian waters for nearly five months, the peak time for whale spotting is January and February.

The South Kohala and North Kohala districts of the Big Island see the most “whale action,” and there are more than a handful of excellent tours you can sign up for including, Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watching Adventures out of Honokohau Harbor; Ocean Sports tours with two locations from A-Bay and Kawaihai Harbor; and Adventure X Boat Tours departing from Puako.

Whale watching on the Big Island offers more than just humpback sightings, too. You might also spot some of the other whale species that make their home in these waters year-round — sperm whales, pilot whales, pygmy killer whales and rare beaked whales — as well as dolphin pods and curious sea turtles.

All watercraft must stay a minimum of 100 yards from the whales at all times but you’ll be surprised how close you actually feel to the action.

That is, if Mother Nature decides to show. You can’t force a creature as big as a bus to shoot out of the deep blue on command. Some days, the whales are less playful than others. Every day is different out on the water.

Passengers may witness only a spout (when the whale expels water from its blowhole) or a tail fluke (when it lifts its tail into the air as it angles for a deep dive).

You have to be ready for anything. Whales can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye — and with lungs the size of a compact car, they can remain submerged anywhere from five to 45 minutes at a time.

A whale watching tour is one of those must-do activities if you are in Hawaiʻi during whale watching season. It’s a window into the world of these majestic and mysterious creatures that you won’t see anywhere else.

whale watching on the big island kohala coast

Whale watching off the Kohala Coast, Big Island. Photo: member Nikki O.

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Whale Watching