Updated: Mar 24
You don’t know what a whale watching tour will entail other than the expectation that you’ll hopefully see some humpback whales. As my friends and I board the morning charter, we realize we had never done this before – an odd but welcoming sensation when you’re on an island and you feel like you’ve done and seen it all. Humpback whales, as it turns out, also like to vacation in Maui. Honestly, who could blame them?
It’s their annual winter migration – for both my friends and humpback whales. The whales, coming off their summer feeding frenzy in Alaska, make the month-long trek to the Hawaiian Islands to give birth, raise their calves, and literally peruse the dating pool to find a mate. My friends Justin and Michelle insist they’re only here for the weather.
Related | Check out our Hawaii Travel Guide
Justin and Michelle are lucky enough to be born and raised here while enjoying the status of a starry-eyed tourist when they come home each year. Which means I get to be a tourist, too. They both live in the Pacific Northwest – a corner that enjoys cool temperatures and rainy, overcast skies.
Winter on Maui is kind of a misnomer, a curiosity that should always come with quotation marks. “Winters” here see the temperature drop about 10-15 degrees, though you can only tell the difference at night. If you were to ask my friends, warm is warm.
On deck with 50 other passengers, it feels like summer. It’s only 9am and we’re booked for 2 and a half hours, ample opportunity for Justin and Michelle to squeeze in a tan. Or, at this rate, sunburn.
The 360-observation deck provides maximum range of views. In front lies the promise of the deep blue. To the right sits the grandeur of the West Maui Mountains, and on the left, the island of Lanai snoozes beneath a blanket of clouds. Behind us, a trail of foam swirling, like an outstretched arm daring anything beneath to come forth.
It seems impossible that we’d be able to spot anything in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I’m wrong about 15 minutes in.
The captain directs everybody’s attention port side. (Amazing how the possibility of a whale gets EVERYBODY’S heads to turn.) I think I don’t see it when I find that I’m staring at it.
A shape juts out of the water, slight and still. Brooding, almost. (I’m a writer. I recognize brooding.) As we pass, plumes of mist shoot out of its blowhole, stirring awe from the kids on board.
“Our first sighting of the day!” the captain says.
“Can we get closer?” the kids say, which I’m sure we were all thinking.
A marine naturalist assures there will be plenty of opportunities.
As many as 10,000 humpback whales populate Maui’s front yard, she goes on. They come for the warm and shallow waters of the Au’au channel. Neighboring islands Lanai and Molokai provide shelter from natural predators of the open ocean. Maui, as it happens, is an attractive locale to raise offspring, to socialize and breed. Speaking as a fellow offspring of two parents who migrated across the Pacific to start a family, I’d sternly agree.
Growing up on an island, whales play a specific backdrop in your life. School field trips take you to visitor centers where you learn all about their history. A statue of a whale sits in Kihei’s Kalama Beach Park, and the Whalers Village Shopping Center in Kaanapali is decorated with their likeness, not just in name.
The possibility of a sighting will casually interrupt conversations on the beach; when you’re in traffic and the car in front points to something in the ocean, or at home and a video of an incoming whale makes the social media rounds, indubitably heralding the season.
It pays to go whale watching at the right time.
About 35 minutes in, the captain ceases the engine. Hawaii is a protected marine life sanctuary. Vessels are not permitted to come within 100 yards of a humpback whale or its path. We have to wait until the humpback moves along safely before we’re legally allowed to start up again, meaning we’re at the whale’s leisure. The phenomenon is known as “whale-mugging.”
“I don’t have cash on me. Will that be a problem?” Michelle says.
“I don’t think they take debit on the reef,” Justin adds.
Needless to say, we got mugged a lot.
Any splash caught everyone’s attention. Sometimes it was a calf curiously circling the vessel. Another rolled up on its white belly, frolicking like the biggest dolphin you’ve ever seen. The crew points out that the mother is usually nearby, keeping watch. Like the kids, I feel compelled to wave at the mother wherever she might be to show that we don’t mean any harm.
I didn’t think humpback whales would be so eager to get close. (One came so close in proximity, I thought for sure it was going to topple us over, and this recounting would’ve been very short.) You almost want to jump in the water with them. Almost. The railing and the certainty of being pulverized keep your hands and feet firmly on deck.
Giant as they are, they’re surprisingly gentle in the way they float to the surface and cruise along by – their eyes small but hypnotic, their pectoral fins, too, giving a wave before they go under. Do humpbacks gather for a people watching tour, I wonder?
As people make way for the brunch spread and others the bar (us), a pod lay half a football field out. The captain beckons us to listen.
Beneath the shuffling of feet and the rustle of the ocean, there, a low rumbling whirs within earshot. Our slack jaws and concentrated faces must make it seem like we’re trying to echolocate. We listen in astonishment as the rumbling veers between a high whistle and the bellow of a conch shell.
I never actually heard what a whale sounded like. It was deep, not metaphorically, but sonically – something you’d imagine a dinosaur sounding like.
We each had our own take on it.
A deep-sea Wookie. An underwater violin. Me yawning.
“They’re singing,” one of the naturalists says.
“Singing?” Justin asks.
During mating season, any number of male humpbacks will compete for the attention of the female. (Which sounds an awful lot like our mating season.) This includes literally bumping heads with one another to show who’s alpha. Or they’ll try to enchant the female with a song. (Again, ours.)
“Fellas, when was the last time you sang for your lady?” the captain says.
A round of mumbling and evading eyes occurs.
Justin fails to see the musicianship, like a regular Simon Cowell on board.
“There’s no rhythm, no melody, just…noise.”
“Better than ‘Baby Shark,’” Michelle remarks.
“Don’t,” I say.
Kids went filing below decks to try out the hydrophones for a better listen. Some of them began to mimic Dory’s whale-speak from Finding Nemo. (We got our turn towards the end. The listening area is quite surreal; the floor is completely see-through, giving you front-row seating to the schools of fish surrounding the boat. Unfortunately, no humpbacks swam directly underneath, though – as kids who grew up terrified by Jaws and Moby Dick and tales of the Kraken – we were grateful.)
I consider the whales we’ve come in contact with so far, thinking they were entertaining us and now wondering if they were, in fact, females flocking to us to evade male attention. Humpback whales are polygamous. The male partners, we learned, are called “escorts.”
Michelle recognizes a kindred spirit in the females.
“You’re too good for them, sis! Focus on your career!” she shouts over the railing, to whichever humpback needs the reality check.
The boat keeps starting back up only to cease minutes later. We were deep in the channel now, smack dab in the world of gentle giants. I lost count of all the whales we’d seen.
Far as we might’ve been from Maui’s shores, the island’s whaling past comes clearer into view – and all the more sobering at this vantage. Two centuries ago, we hunted humpback whales to near extinction. Whale oil was the hottest commodity on the market and Maui’s west side port of Lahaina was, at the industry’s height, the whaling capital of the world.
The whale population, fortunately, managed to bounce back in the years since the whaling trade came to an end. The efforts we’ve taken on our part, though small, still offers a glimmer of hope.
Hawaii is a protected marine life sanctuary. There are monuments across the islands dedicated to the preservation of these creatures, and the proceeds of these charters go towards ongoing conservation and research.
Humpbacks came a long way. Thankfully, so did we.
I look around the boat with an appreciation for everything about this charter. I admire the steadfastness of all the marine biologists and naturalists on board, even the cheesy captain. Every one of them making the rounds, answering questions, reminding guests not to prod or disturb any marine animals we’re fortunate enough to see. They do this 3 times a day, 5 days a week with so much attention and care.
I don’t know if the whales can see and I don’t know if all is forgiven, but I hope they can feel that aloha shining through.
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