From December to April, Maui is one of the greatest destinations in the world to see humpback whales. While there are dozens of excellent whale-watching companies, choosing the one that’s best for you depends on factors like health issues, comfort, and good old-fashioned personal preference.
Below is a guide and our tour company recommendations to help you choose the best tour for you and ensure you maximize your enjoyment!
Remember – humpback whales are protected and all whale watch companies are required to stay at least 100 yards away while watching whales. That doesn’t mean the whales can’t approach the boats and they sometimes do.
How to Choose a Whale Watching Tour
Size and type of boat
Tour operators on Maui use a variety of boats from large cabin cruisers with multiple decks, to sailing catamarans, to pontoon type boats, to inflatable raft type boats (with and without rigid hulls or bottoms.)
Factors to Consider in Choosing a Whale Watch
- Faster boats allow you to visit more whale watching sites, which increases your chances for more encounters with whales. If the whales aren’t appearing in one area, it’s easy to zip over to another area in the tour time allowed.
- Faster boats aren’t necessarily the larger boats. Many smaller boats are equipped with larger engines so they can often get to multiple sites just as fast as the larger boats.
- Smaller boats usually mean a bumpier ride, which could be problematic if anyone in your group has neck or back issues. Pontoon type boats decrease rocking which makes seasickness less of an issue.
- In a smaller boat, the chances of getting wet increase, and it’s more difficult to get out of the wind. However, the advantage is that you are closer to the water level and therefore at the same level as the whales, which many people prefer.
- All boats are certified by law to allow only a set amount of passengers. However, some boats limit the number of passengers below the maximum allowed to enhance the quality of the experience.
Questions to answer before you sign up for your whale watching tour:
- Does the tour operator guarantee whale sightings? How active have the whales been this season, and how successful has the captain been in finding whales?
- Does the tour boat have a hydrophone they drop in the water to listen to whale songs and other sounds?
- Does the tour use a microphone or not?
- Does the boat have “Whale Cam”, underwater video equipment with on-board monitors so you can see what’s going on under the water?
- Does the tour operation donate a portion of their proceeds to support non-profits like Whale Trust Maui, the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary, or other whale conservation groups?
- What’s the limit of passengers on the boat?
- How much shade is on the boat? Is it possible to get out of the direct sun if you want? Some boat designs and covers provide more shade than others. Ask the operator.
- How photo-friendly is the boat? Do they make efforts, such as angling the boat to help photographers get better shots?
- Consider bringing a jacket or windbreaker. Regardless of how warm it is on the dock, it can get cooler on the water.
- Bring a camera with a long lens capable of fast shutter speeds. A waterproof camera bag is useful for avoiding sea spray.
- Learn to tell directions on the boat by using the hour system. This is how the naturalist will inform you of whale sightings. For example: “Whale spout at 3 o’clock!” or “Whale breach at 10 o’clock!”
The Boat Captain and Naturalist are Key
All the technology in the world can’t make up for experience on the water. Your chance for getting up close and personal with humpback whales really hinges on the ability of the crew to find them. Having a knowledgeable naturalist ensures you are not only seeing whales, but learning about them and the behaviors you are observing.
Maui is blessed with some truly talented experts in spotting whales. Many captains have spent their lives in the Au Au channel and know it shore to shore. Not only do they know the sites, they often know the whales themselves, sometimes by names.
Recommended Whale Watching Tour Companies on Maui:
Captain Steve’s Rafting
Gemini Sailing Charters
Hawaiian Paddle Sports
Hawaii Ocean Project
Hawaii Ocean Rafting
Maui Adventure Cruises
Maui Kayak Adventures
Ultimate Whale Watch
The Yacht Jayhawk