Top 10 Things About Maui’s Humpback Whales

Alexandra MitchellLast updated: January 21, 2018

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ten things you should know about maui's humpback whalesE Komo Mai and Welcome to Pride of Maui’s 10 Things About Maui’s Humpback Whales! Do you want to know the absolutely best activity to do in Hawaii? Well, it’s whale watching on Maui, of course! With the warm Pacific Ocean breeze on our backs, we warmly invite you to marvel in amazement and experience a spectacular Maui whale watching Tour. There is no better Hawaiian Island, or better place in the world to enjoy a momentous ocean activity like this.

Whale Watching in Maui Hawaii

When on Maui during the Winter months, please, if there is only one activity you must do, make sure to see the whales! It is most definitely one of the greatest experiences you will ever have in your life. Believe us, it might just leave you speechless! With a valuable insider’s perspective and all the local knowledge you need for maximizing your next fabulous vacation to Hawaii, check out a Maui whale watching tour with Pride of Maui. To give you a bit of history, and a little glimpse of good times ahead, we have written this 10 Things About Maui’s Humpback Whales blog post just for you. Take a seat and relax for a few minutes – your next Maui vacation could be just around the corner!

whale watching tour 10 things you should know about maui's humpback whales


#1 Humpback Whales Are Kamaaina

humpback whalesThe magical Kohola (Humpback Whales) have been visiting Hawaii since as far back as the ancient Polynesian Era, 1-600 AD. There is so much archeological proof that supports this, including a handful of Hawaiian petroglyphs (ancient carvings on stone) that represent whales found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The most notable are found in Olowalu on Maui, Pohue on the Big Island, and Palaoa Hill (Whale Hill) on the Island of Lana’i, where a human figure is sitting on the back of a whale.

Proof of whale life in Hawaiian culture is also commonly learned through folklore, and seen in many Hawaiian ritual artifacts, including Tabua, ceremonial whale tooth necklaces worn only by Ali’i (royalty) and high ranking chiefs.

petroglyphs maui

Humpback Whales can grow up to 60 feet (18 meters) in length, weigh 80,000 pounds and more, with the females being larger than males. These whales are primarily grey with white underbellies, and their lifespan, on average, is 50 years, although there have been accounts of 90 year old Humpback Whales.

whale season maui

It is important to note that the prehistoric Kohola are, and have always been, considered an Aumakua (ancestor) to the Hawaiian people, regarded as spiritual guides like the Honu (Green Hawaiian Sea Turtles), and the Pueo (White Hawaiian Owls). On the beautiful Island of Maui, we look forward to Humpback Whale Season every year. The Kohola grace our oceans and shores every Winter, roughly between the months of November and March. However, they have also been seen on Maui as early as October, and as late as May. We consider their arrival a homecoming, as they are the original Kamaaina (locals).

#2 History of Whale Poaching

Yes, sadly, Humpback Whale poaching did occur in Hawaii. Whaling ships began to arrive in Hawaii in the early 19th century. At this point in history, whale oil was used to power industrial machinery during the Industrial Revolution, provide heat, and in oil lamps for lighting. Whale bone was used in umbrella frames, buggy whips, decoration for toiletry items (combs, brushes, shaving blades, etc.), skirt hoops and corsets. American, European and Asian ships would hunt for whales in Hawaiian waters, South Pacific oceans, the Japan Sea, and specific Arctic locales, possibly what we know now as Alaska. The most frequented whaling ports in Hawaii were Lahaina on Maui, and Honolulu on Oahu.

whaling industry hawaii

Not only was whale poaching an unusually cruel act of humankind, fueled by convenience and modernization, but it also drastically affected the cultural climate of Hawaii. At the time, native Hawaiians were desperately grasping onto their historical roots while struggling with the influences of Western culture and governance. The theme of this time was ruled by the Christian sway of missionaries and various world leaders that sought to gain power from an ‘ownership’ of the Hawaiian Islands and people. The variety of whaling ships that came to Hawaii brought many diverse cultures, foods, animal species, flora and fauna. Some of these influences were as beautiful as the plumeria flower, pineapple, and the avocado. Negligently, some of these influences were as detrimental as a variety of diseases, vermin, invasive species, gambling and prostitution.


In the late 1850’s, the whaling industry began to slow down due to the widespread discovery of land petroleum which replaced the need for whale oil. Hawaii’s whaling economy was soon replaced with an agribusiness economy, predominately sugarcane crop farming.

#3 An Endangered Species

Thank the universe, Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are now protected by a variety of national and international agreements, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), Endangered Species Act of 1973 by the NOAA (National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration), and Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna And Flora Treaty (CITES) of 1973.

whale watching maui

Humpback Whales can no longer be poached, fished, harassed, corralled, or traded between countries. Literally speaking, the Humpback Whales cannot be owned by anyone. Due to their migratory habits, no country or international entity can claim the Humpback Whales as their property, and over 180 nations have agreed to work collaboratively to conserve and protect this species.

fluke dive whale

The North Pacific Humpback Whale has three separate populations, also referred to as ‘stocks’:

1) The California/Oregon/Washington stock which migrates from British Columbia to Central America

2) The Central North Pacific stock that migrates between Alaska and Hawaii

3) The Western North Pacific stock that migrates from the Kodiak Archipelago to Japan waters

Although these three groups of whales are somewhat distinct in migrational habits, there is a mixing between populations, which is very interesting. In 1966, the North Pacific Humpback Whale population was believed to be approximately 1,400. Currently, it is estimated at 20,000.

#4 The Big Journey From Alaska

The North Pacific Humpback Whales travel a huge distance (3,500 miles) from Alaskan waters to Hawaiian waters every year. It is believed that their one-way journey can take as little as 36 days in the timeframe of 4-6 weeks.

alaska to hawaii whales

During Alaskan Summers, the Humpback Whales spend their time fattening up, and storing the fat (blubber) that they will live off of during their Hawaiian Winter. With an exception to the baby calves that are born and nursed during the Winter, the adult Humpback Whales do not feed in Hawaiian waters.

#5 Mating, Birthing & Raising Calves

The Humpback Whales rendezvous and perform mating rituals in tropical Hawaiian waters. It may come as a shock, but they are polygynous mammals (opposite of monogamous). They are believed to be promiscuous breeders, and the males do not play a parental role in the lives of their calves. In truth, genetic testing shows that over the breeding life of an individual female, calves will have different fathers. After mating rituals, females are seldom seen in the company of the males that they have mated with.

whale watching maui

Throughout the Hawaiian Winter, the males are continually seen exhibiting aggressive behavior towards other males, and protective behavior to females and baby calves. From their initial arrival in Hawaii to when the calves are born, nursed, and eventually depart again, there are many displays of antagonistic male behavior. Signs of this behavior include male whale fighting – chasing, thrashing, thrusting, bubble and spouting displays, and vocal outbursts.

whale watching tours maui

breaching whale mauiBaby Humpback Whales are in utero for 11 to 12 months. When born, they can be between 13 to 16 feet in length, and weigh 1 1/2 tons. Surviving off their mothers 50% fat milk, the calves grow approximately 1 inch and gain 100 pounds per day. Female Humpback Whales are affectionate, playful and extremely protective of their baby calves. As the calves grow, it is quite common to see the newborn Humpback Whales frolic and play on the surface of the ocean, while the mothers take quiet naps below. The babies will eventually learn how to raise their pectoral fins up and down on the ocean’s surface, called pectoral slapping, and breach, a learned action that will continue with them through adulthood. Humpback Whale calves are typically weaned 6 to 10 months after birth.

#6 Feeding Habits

Hawaii’s North Pacific Humpback Whales have very specific feeding habits! The gloriously massive Kohola (whales) do not ever eat in Hawaii’s tropical waters. During their annual Hawaiian Winter migration, the Humpback whales live off of all their stored fat and blubber. During their Alaskan Summer, the whales spend the majority of their time feeding and preparing for their warm Winter migration ahead.

feeding humpback whales

The North Pacific Humpback Whale feed primarily on krill and other small crustacean species. They also eat plankton and small fish in abundance. In entirety, the Humpback Whales can easily devour over 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of food per day!

whale feeding

alaska whale feedingHunting methods differ between singular and group hunting sessions. The main hunting strategy of the Humpback Whale is to disorient the environment around them by using air bubbles or physical corralling methods to herd schools of fish, plankton or krill together. There is also a particular group method of hunting that is unique to the North Pacific Humpbacks. This is called “bubble netting”, an elaborate hunting scheme performed by a group of whales where they each perform a specific role. They each take part in scaring, herding, distracting and otherwise disorienting the prey. Once the prey is corralled near the surface, Humpback Whales go in for the lunge!

#7 Behavior

Humpback Whale behavior and habitual characteristics are distinct for each breed of whale. As mentioned earlier, Humpback Whales can be up to 60 feet in length, the females being the dominantly sized sex. They are famously known for their active pectoral fins that give them an extreme range of motion. Their pectoral fins not only allow them to perform playful performances on the ocean surface, but also permit them to swim backwards and have the ability to slow down and increase rate of speed quickly.

tail slap humpback whale

Without a doubt, Humpback Whales are definitely one of the favorite whale breeds to watch due to their entertaining and high-spirited nature. It is common to see them execute amazing aerial displays as they triumphantly breach out of the water and dramatically fling their bodies back into the ocean’s abyss. They commonly slap the ocean surface with their heads, pectoral fins and tails. Humpbacks can hold their breath for up 45 minutes, but usually come up for air every 15 to 20 minutes. When they do come up, you will see them spout or blow. A spy hop is when the whales curiously peak their heads out of the water, and a fluke dive is when the whale’s head come up out of the surface of the water to gain inertia to dive deeper, just like we do when we are snorkeling.

whale breaching maui

During the late season, as the whales are preparing to leave the Hawaiian waters, a male bull will come to escort a female and her calve out of the Hawaiian channel. It is quite common to see “competitive pods” of males at this time. Male Humpback Whale competitive pods can be very aggressive and exhibit behaviors such as head slapping, tail slapping, and breaching upon each other, sometimes resulting in bloodshed.

#8 Whale Songs

A really cool fact about Humpback Whales is that they sing underwater and can be heard from up to 12 miles away! It is a real deal fact that only the male Humpback Whales sing, and that they are also lone mammals. These huge animals sing 50 to 60 feet below the ocean surface with their heads pointing down, and their tails pointed up. There are absolutely no words that can even describe how fascinating this is!

whale singing maui

It is believed that the Humpback males sing in breeding grounds to attract females and ward off foreign males. Songs can last from 20 to 40 minutes and are likened to a complex classical music concerto when broken down into specific phrases and units.

On Maui, season after season, the Whale Songs are recorded by multiple non-profits and vested marine life protection groups. There is such a meticulous pattern to their songs that it has been noted that where they stop the song at the end of a season is where they pick right up again at the beginning of the next! Isn’t that so incredible? Love the Whales!

#9 You Can See Them From The Shoreline

The Island of Maui is hands down the best place to be in Hawaii for whale watching. Not only are there so many awesome Maui whale watching tours and combo whale watching snorkel tours to do, but you can also see them on a calm and romantic Maui sunset dinner cruise. You can watch them from your resort or from the lanai (porch/balcony) of your vacation rental. See them from the sand, and pull over to watch them if you are driving!

whale watch maui

The most common road to see the whales breach and play from a distance is on the stretch of Highway 30 between Maalaea and Lahaina. This can also be one of the windiest drives on Maui, and one of the busiest highways on Maui due to tourist traffic. So, with all this in mind, make sure to be super aware when driving on Maui during the Winter months. It is easy to become completely enthralled by one of nature’s biggest wonders while en route to your next destination. Avoid a crash or a fender bender, and keep your eyes on the road! If you really can’t help watching these magnificent creatures, please pull over!

#10 Whale Watching

Without a doubt, the #1 ocean activity on Maui is whale watching. If you’re visiting Maui during the winter months, give yourself one of the biggest gifts in life, and do not miss out on a chance to see the Humpback Whales during their annual migration to Hawaii.

whale season in hawaii whale watching tour

There are no words to describe how fabulous this Maui activity can be, and you better believe that Maui is internationally known as the best place in the world for whale watching. No matter your age, all participants will be in awe after seeing the firsthand beauty and grace of whales breaching above the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Commonly accompanied by playful Spinner Dolphins, smile and laugh as male Humpback Whales impress the females during breeding rituals. See the baby calves thrill all spectators with their childlike skips and leaps across the surface of the ocean.

hawaii whale season

We invite you to marvel in their beauty, innocence, and the primal urges of ocean wildlife while experiencing a fabulously humbling ocean activity on Maui. This is most definitely one of those must do activities in your life, one that should not be missed, and one that will never be forgotten. Enjoy this truly sublime ocean activity for the first time, and introduce it to your family and friends.

Whale watching in Hawaii will unquestionably be a Maui memory that will be adored forever in the hearts of all that experience it. These peaceful creatures are downright intelligent and magical. Witnessing Humpback Whales in their natural environment will certainly be one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of your life.

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Mahalo Nui Loa for reading Pride of Maui’s 10 Things About Maui’s Humpback Whales. We absolutely love the Humpback Whales on Maui and cannot wait to share an experience with each and every one of you! If you’ve been whale watching before, what were your favorite things about your trip? Please let us know in the comments section below, and make sure to share this post with all of your friends.

From all of us at Pride of Maui, Malama pono a hui hou (Take care, until we meet again)!

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Written By  Alexandra Mitchell

Alexandra is a marketing professional with a passion for writing about travel to the Hawaiian Islands, vacation rentals, and luxury real estate. She exposes readers to glimpses of 'Old Hawaii,' new destinations to explore, local events, and all the best things to do on Maui.