Dennis Howland, a retail manager from Dayton, Ohio, will never forget his first whale.

“We were out there not 15 minutes when this magnificent creature came up and did a head slap,” said Howland, 56. “We were a couple of hundred yards away, but you could clearly see what a massive, powerful thing it was. Its front must have been 15 feet out of the water, at least, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s just the tip of the iceberg.’ ”

The sighting, which Howland said lasted just a second or two, happened during a 1988 whale-watching tour at Maui’s Ma’alaea Bay.

“It was an incredible rush for me,” said Howland. “In one instant, your place on this planet is put right into perspective. Right then and there you know big from small.”

Howland, whose wife, Alicia, has family on O’ahu, has been coming back to Hawai’i every three or four years trying to recapture the magic of that transcendent first encounter. By land and by sea, he’s seen the migratory giants arch, dive, slap, hop and breach off Maui, O’ahu, the Big Island and Lana’i.

On one tour off Olowalu, Howland snapped a “perfect” photo of a whale’s fluke in midslap. It sits in a frame on his desk at work.

“I’ve looked at that photo so many times, I’ve memorized the markings on (the whale’s) tail,” Howland said. “I keep thinking maybe I’ll run across him again somewhere, someday.”

High-powered binoculars in hand and zinc oxide on his nose, Howland kept an eye out for his elusive friend during a recent shoreline stop at Spitting Caves off Portlock.

“No sign of him yet, but I’ve seen lots of activity,” said Howland. “You can’t go wrong this time of year.”

Standing nearby, Niu Valley resident Desiree Potter was hoping her 5-year-old twins, Lance and Lane, would get their own first glimpse of a whale.

“It’s got to be better than my first time,” she said. “I was on a boat totally seasick, and my boyfriend at the time kept saying, ‘Look, Des, look.’ Finally, I looked and I saw this mama and her baby coming up. It was so amazing, I got chicken skin. I forgot I was sick.”

However, with the sun glaring from directly overhead, Potter said, she couldn’t tell a humpback from a whitecap on the dazzling surface.

“I might be seeing something, but I wouldn’t know,” she said. “The boys, they gave up already.”

A Sight to See

Like Potter and Howland, thousands of residents and visitors are taking guided boat tours or flocking to coastal lookouts to catch the migratory humpback whales on annual winter vacation from the Gulf of Alaska.

Juvenile males are the first to arrive, usually in November, followed by adult males and females, and then pregnant females.

Warm Hawaiian waters don’t produce enough krill (tiny shrimp-like animals, the humpbacks’ primary food source) to sustain the whales year-round, but they do provide a safe environment for the whales to mate, calve and nurse their young before departing around April.

While humpbacks can be found near each of the major islands, most head straight to Maui, where the proximity of neighboring Lana’i, Moloka’i and Kaho’olawe (and the shallow basin they form) provide a protective environment for the nursing mothers and calves.

“On the Leeward side of the island, you can see a whale within 15 to 20 minutes if you’re looking,” said Greg Kaufman, president and founder of Pacific Whale Foundation.

If You’re Lucky …

Kaufman said he’s seen the North Pacific whale population increase from about 600 to about 8,000 during his 30 years of researching whales and advocating their protection. Even with their improving numbers, Kaufman said, people should keep in mind that seeing a humpback whale — “1/8000th of the entire population” — is pretty special.

Still, people who watch too much “Extreme Animal Planet” occasionally show up expecting to see breaching whales at every turn.

“So to me, people need to lower their expectations about what they’re going to see and realize that they’re seeing a living, wild animal in its natural environment,” Kaufman said. “Things aren’t going to be perfect. It’s not like a safari. They’re here to mate, deliver and nurse their young.

If you’re expecting a Michael Jordan highlight, you’re going to be really disappointed.”

Variety of Tours

The whales are a major draw for visitors, and, accordingly, there’s no shortage of whale-watching tours to choose from, including the one operated by Kaufman’s foundation.

Kaufman and other longtime operators advise would-be clients to choose carefully. He said tours dedicated solely to whale-watching tend to offer longer and better opportunities to observe whale behavior than tours that offer whale-watching as part of a larger package of activities.

Kaufman also said it helps to have a certified naturalist guiding the tour to help interpret those behaviors and to answer questions accurately.

Most tour companies use catamarans, which provide the kind of relatively steady ride and elevated viewing angles that many novice whale-watchers prefer. However, inflatable-boat and kayak tours also are available for a more immediate experience. Regardless, all are subject to the same rule that restricts boats from approaching within 100 yards of whales.

On-Land Viewing

Not that you need to be on a boat to see a whale. Many casual whale-watchers make do with a whale-watching book, some sunscreen, and a seat on the shore.

On O’ahu, the best on-landviewing is on the south shore, at places like Makapu’u Lighthouse, Halona Blow Hole, the Lana’i Lookout, Spitting Caves and Diamond Head.

With shoreline viewing, the deeper the water is close to shore, the closer the whales are likely to approach. That’s important because even from an elevated vantage point like the Makapu’u Lighthouse lookout, sun, wind and other conditions can make spotting a whale difficult.

Some whale-watchers hold that whales are less likely to surface during midday hours. Not true, said Kaufman, explaining that whales maintain their visible respiratory behavior around the clock,— although glare from the sun and disturbances on the surface of the water can make those difficult for untrained eyes to spot. Kaufman says whales can be seen at any time of the day if the watcher knows what to look for.

Christine Brammer, O’ahu programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said the best way to look for whales from shore is to find a location with an elevated view, then scan the ocean slowly, not back and forth, but left to right and left to right again.

“You’re less likely to miss something that way,” she said.

Brammer works with volunteers at the sanctuary’s shoreline whale surveys. She advises volunteers to look for the telltale whale’s spout, one of the more frequent and easy-to-spot behaviors.

“Once you spot that, focus on the area around it for the whale to resurface,” she said.

Brammer said other species of whale besides humpbacks are in Hawaiian waters year-round, but they’re generally too small to notice from shore.

Back at Spitting Caves, the Potters called it a day after Lane saw a whale spout in the distance, an event Alicia Howland happily confirmed through her own set of binoculars.

“Yep,” Dennis Howland said. “Thar something blows.”

Whale-Watching Tips:

Slowly scan the ocean left to right. When you complete one visual pass, start at the left again.

Keep an eye out for spouting, one of the most visible and frequent whale behaviors.

Once you spot a whale, keep an eye on the immediate vicinity for it to resurface or demonstrate other observable behavior.

Remember that wind, glare and choppy seas can make whales more difficult to spot.