Whale Watching Hawaii: Best Views, Tours, & Free Lookouts

Whales and Dolphins in Hawaii
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Whale Watching Hawaii: Many visitors come to the islands just for this activity. And for good reason. It’s an incredible experience to encounter one of Earth’s most majestic creatures in a beautiful location. Are you considering heading to Hawaii during whale season? Whether it’s your sole reason for visiting Hawaii or part of a full vacation schedule, we’ve got great advice for you. 

You’ll want to know the time of year for whale watching in Hawaii and the best ways to see a whale as close up as possible. Plus, you want to be prepared with the best tips along with some free options so you can still see whales in between excursions. 

Everything You Need To Know About Whale Watching in Hawaii

You want to go whale watching during your Hawaii vacation, but you also want to make sure it’s worth it. After all, choosing the right dates, the right islands, and the right tour companies make all the difference.

Read on to get the best info from locals who have been on multiple whale-watching excursions and have seen incredible breeches from the shoreline (for no cost!). 

A Brief Intro to Hawaii Whales

When people talk about Hawaii whales (and whale season!), they’re typically referring to humpback whales. Though other whales appear in Hawaii waters, humpbacks are the most popular and most spotted. 

During winter months, thousands of humpback whales (koholā) travel to Hawaii from Alaska. They’re here to breed, give birth, and nurse their calves. 

Humpback whales spend a lot of time near the water’s surface, which is great for us humans who are intrigued by their size, behavior, and beauty. In Hawaii, you may see a whale breaching (jumping out of the water), slapping the water with its fins, diving under the water, logging (resting at the surface), or spouting. 

Whale Watching Hawaii

Many whales come to the surface to play, breathe, eat, or even fight. I’ve seen a group of male whales fighting during a whale-watching tour in Hawaii, and it was incredibly cool. 

If you take a Hawaii whale-watching tour, you’ll learn so much about these fascinating mammals, and how they spend their months in Hawaii. 

When is Whale Season in Hawaii?

Whale season in Hawaii officially runs from mid-December until mid-May. The peak time for whale watching is January through March. So, if your goal during a Hawaii vacation is to see whales, we recommend visiting in January or February. 

I’ve personally seen whales as early as mid-November through April, but I’ve heard stories of them appearing far outside this timeframe too. So don’t be surprised if you visit in October or May and see a whale breaching in the ocean.  

Where to See Humpback Whales 

During their season, whales appear throughout the Hawaiian islands. But Maui will be the best island to spot them. The Auʻau Channel that runs between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai is their most favored hangout spot. 


If you’re heading to Hawaii to whale watch, you’ll probably have the best experience in Maui. Staying in Wailea, Kihei, Maalaea, Kaanapali, and Kapalua will put you closer to action. Choose a Maui hotel room with a balcony overlooking the water, or book a whale-watching trip that leaves from one of these locations.

Luckily for you, these whale-rich areas of the island are also the most popular places for visitors to stay.

Book your Maui sunset whale watching excursion here!


Many people consider Kauai the second-best island for whale watching in Hawaii. You’ll likely be able to see whales along Kauai’s north and south shores. They also appear in the scenic waters along the Na Pali coast. 


Oahu sees a lot of whales around the Makapuu lighthouse area and along the North Shore. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye out when you’re in Waikiki or Ko Olina, as whales make their way around much of the island. 

Hawaii Island

Hawaii Island isn’t the ultimate spot for whale watching, but you’ll still want to take a tour (or watch from shore) if you’re visiting during whale season. Your best areas will be near Kona along the island’s northwest coast. 

Hawaii Whale Watching Tours

If you want to get as close as possible to humpback whales in Hawaii, you’ll need to get on the water. Luckily, there are many options for boat excursions wholly dedicated to whale watching. 

But with so many options, it can be hard to know which is right for you. Here are the many different ways you can get on the water and see humpback whales in Hawaii. But first, let’s learn a little more about what to expect from tours. 

What to Know About Tours

Humpback whales are heavily protected in Hawaii, so tour operators must abide by strict regulations. This ensures the whales are safe and able to live their lives free of interruptions, but don’t worry – you will still have a great time on your tour. 

In Hawaii, boats cannot get within 100 yards of a whale. That’s about the length of a football field. Once they’re at that 100-yard distance, tour boats will run in neutral while observing the whale and looking out for other sightings. 

Boats also can’t purposefully cross paths with a moving whale in hopes of getting a closer view. 

However, it’s pretty common for whales to approach a boat that is in neutral and following all the rules. This is the ultimate whale-watching experience, and what many people hope for when booking an excursion. 

I don’t know the odds of this happening during your whale trip. During my multiple excursions, it’s happened a few times, so it’s certainly worth hoping for. But even if a whale doesn’t decide to come and check out your boat, you can still get an incredible view of them from 100 yards away. 

Large Catamaran Tours

Whale Watching Catamaran in Waikiki

The most popular way to whale watch in Hawaii is to ride on a large catamaran. These vessels can hold many guests (while still allowing room to spread out). They also allow you to see farther in the distance, since you’ll be higher up out of the water. 

The perks of taking a catamaran tour are that you can move around the boat, and many offer food and drinks. You can book anything from a morning breakfast tour to a sunset dinner cruise. Larger boats are also better than smaller ones if you’re prone to sea sickness.

Ultimately, the main draw of whale watching on Hawaii’s larger catamaran boats is comfort. A range of seating options, the ability to move around, onboard restrooms, and smoother sailing. 

Raft Tours for Whale Watching in Hawaii

The other popular whale-watching vessel is smaller motorized raft boats, like a Zodiac. These small boats zip through the water. So, if the captain gets a report about whales spotted in a different area, you can likely get there very quickly. 

You’ll also be right on the water. This will keep you from seeing whales farther away, but it’s an incredible experience if whales happen to approach your boat. You are right at eye level with the whales. 

Raft tours typically run for less time since they don’t have food, snacks, and restrooms. They also hold fewer guests (probably 20 or fewer vs. a catamaran’s 60, 100, or more). 

Hawaii whale watching on a raft boat is perfect for adventurers who want a unique memory and don’t mind sacrificing some comfort. After all, you’ll be confined to your one spot on the edge or seat of the boat and will have to deal with waves and higher speeds. 

Pro tip: Want to go on a snorkel and whale-watching excursion? Many rafting and catamaran tours offer both adventures in one!

Kayak Tours

Na Pali Coast Kayak Kauai

Kayaks are low and slow – not the best for whale watching in Hawaii. But it is a unique (and active!) way to get out on the water, and if you do spot whales, it will feel incredible. Little old you in your kayak and the whales that are unbelievably large. 

Just remember that you do still have to follow the 100-yard rule on a kayak (or if you’re on a paddle board or swimming), so it’s not like you can paddle up to a whale. 

If you simply want to go kayaking, then going during whale season could be an unforgettable experience. If you want the best chance of seeing whales, this won’t be the best way to do it. 

Free Whale Watching in Hawaii

For the best time whale watching, you’ll want to join some kind of tour. You can’t beat the encounters you’ll have once you’re on the water. 

But that’s certainly not the only way to see whales in Hawaii. In fact, you may be able to see more whales from shore – just from a little farther away. Here is how we recommend you spot whales on your own. 

Head to a Scenic Lookout

Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail

Don’t whale watch and drive! It seems basic, but it is life-saving advice. Many of Hawaii’s roads are narrow and twisting – requiring the driver to remain totally focused (even if going at slow speeds). 

Luckily, Hawaii’s scenic roads have many lookout spots that are perfect for whale watching. Take advantage of these locations – they’re often set up specifically for whale watching. 

Lighthouse points are great areas for spotting whales. So be sure to stop by Makapuu Lighthouse Trail on Oahu or Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai if you’re around during whale season. 

Choose a High Rise

Picture this: you wake up in the morning, pour yourself a cup of local Hawaii coffee, and settle in on your hotel lanai. From here, you have an ideal vantage point for whale watching. Sure, you aren’t close to the action, but you can see a vast portion of the ocean below. 

This means you could see multiple whales spread out at once. 

Of course, any ocean view room will allow you the chance to see whales during winter, but the ones with the best views will offer the best chance!

Listen For Their Song

Hold your breath and go underwater in a quiet (yet safe) place near the ocean floor. From here, you may be able to hear a symphony of whale calls. Whales use a range of frequencies and patterns to communicate. Soon, you may find that hearing whales is as captivating as seeing them. 

Tips for Whale Watching in Hawaii

Now that you know how to whale watch (from land or water), you’re ready for the best tips and advice to make the most of it! Here’s what we’ve learned from many whale sightings. 

  • Bring binoculars. They will help you better observe the behavior of whales. 
  • Be patient. If you’re in a good spot to see whales and it’s whale season, the final thing you need is time. Oftentimes I’m ready to give up on a place, and then we’re watching incredible breeches and spouting from multiple whales. 
  • Put the camera down. Sure, it’s nice to get a few pictures or videos to remember your whale spotting, but that shouldn’t be your primary focus. Witnessing a whale in person is a rare event that you should fully enjoy. So skip recording and simply admire what’s happening right in front of you. 
  • Learn as much as you can. Even if you opt out of a professional whale tour, you should still learn about Hawaii’s majestic whales. Places like the Maui Ocean Center and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (on Maui and Kauai) offer incredible insight into whales. 

Want to make sure your Hawaii vacation is full of incredible experiences like whale watching? Hawaii Aloha Travel can help! We can put together a vacation plan that’s centered around whale watching or simply include it in a well-rounded itinerary. 

And be sure to tell us all about your whale-watching experiences in Hawaii!