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Inside: In the winter months, Maui is home to some of the world’s best whale watching. Here are my top picks for the most amazing Maui whale-watching tours.
If you’re fortunate enough to visit the Hawaiian Islands during whale season, lucky you. It’s one of the best times to visit the islands. Especially if you’re a wildlife enthusiast.
During the winter months, North Pacific humpback whales migrate by the thousands from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm Hawaiian waters of the islands. And Maui is widely considered the best Hawaiian island for close encounters with whales during this annual winter migration.
While in the Maui area, the whales mate, nurse their newborn calves, and thrill locals and tourists alike with their playfulness and acrobatics.
Once hunted to near-extinction, these magnificent marine mammals are now one of the worldwide conservation movement’s major success stories.
Fondly known as koholā in the Hawaiian language, these gentle giants are a joy to observe in their natural habitat. And while we do spot them from Oahu (where I live), the island of Maui is known around the world as one of the top spots for up-close whale watching.
Why take a Maui Boat Tour?
Boat tours are a terrific way to appreciate Maui’s spectacular coastline any time of year.
But during whale season, every boat trip around Maui doubles as a whale-watching adventure. For example, let’s say you book the uber-popular Molokini Snorkeling Adventure Aboard Calypso. Yep, in the winter months, that’s a whale-watching trip, too!
And that means every Maui boat trip this time of year is a home run day trip that spells fun for the whole family.
FAQs about Whale Watching in Maui
You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. So before I get to my list of the best Maui whale-watching tours, let’s tackle some of the most common questions about whale watching in Maui.
Why do whales migrate to Hawaii?
The migration of humpback whales to the warm waters of Hawaii, in particular the Valley Isle of Maui, is a centuries-old survival instinct.
Hawaii’s warm, shallow waters create an ideal environment for newborn baby whales, free from the threat of predators prevalent in the cold Alaska waters. At the same time, the adults take advantage of this time to mate (because, hey, when in Hawaii!).
When is whale season in Maui?
Humpback whale season in Maui begins roughly in November and ends in May. Though it’s not uncommon for whales to be spotted offshore as early as late October. The peak whale season is considered to be from December to March.
What is the best month to see whales in Maui?
Maui’s whale season peaks in January and February. During these peak season months, you’ll have the best chance of multiple whale sightings during your boat tour.
What is the best time of day for whale watching?
Whales can be spotted any time of day around Maui but they are most active in the morning and around sunset. These are the best times of day to book your whale-watching trip. Tip: For the best chance of calm seas, book an early morning trip.
Which island is better for whale watching, Kauai or Maui?
Maui is widely considered the best place to see humpback whales in the Hawaiian islands. However, I have done incredible whale-watching tours on both Maui and Kauai and found them to be very comparable regarding the number of whale sightings.
However, whales are easier to spot from shore in Maui. And you’ll likely see more whales on a Maui whale-watching trip than Kauai.
But my favorite thing about whale-watching on Maui versus Kauai is that the whales are closer to shore. That means a shorter boat ride to see them. This is good news for those with seasickness issues.
Of course, it’s hard to beat the backdrop of the stunning Na Pali coast on Kauai whale watching tours.
Can I see whales from shore in Maui?
You can! It’s common to spot whales from shore in Maui. In fact, on my last winter visit to the Westin Maui Resort & Spa in Ka’anapali, I sat on the beach at sunset every night watching whales leap into the air off the coast.
It was pure Maui magic.
And anytime you’re driving along the coast, keep your eyes on the sea (as long as you’re not driving!) and watch for whale spray. You’ll spot it for sure. In fact, the Auau Channel off the coast of Ka’anapali gives you a front-row seat to spot these amazing whales.
Your best bet to spot whales from shore is anywhere on the west side of the island from Kapalua to Wailea.
Best places to spot whales from shore on Maui:
- McGregor Point Lighthouse
- Ka’anapali Beach
- Kihei Beach
- Wailea Beach
So if you’re especially prone to seasickness or a whale-watching tour is out of your budget, head to one of these popular spots for a good chance to see them from dry land.
Whale Watching Tours on Maui: Essential Info
If you’ve been on boat tours before in the Caribbean or Europe, I should mention that the waters around the Hawaiian islands can be rough by comparison. Boat trips for whale watching in Hawaii aren’t for everyone.
Luckily, in Maui, many of the best whale-watching tours are short trips of approximately 2 hours. So even if you do get a little seasick, it won’t last long. As opposed to Kauai whale tours which involve getting up to the Na Pali coast, generally a 6-hour trip at least.
Plus, as I mentioned above, it’s pretty easy to spot whales from shore so don’t subject yourself to an all-day boat trip if you’ve had bad boat tour experiences before.
Before I get to my favorite tours, let’s talk a little about how to decide which type of tour is right for you.
What types of boat tours are offered?
Whale-watching tours on Maui primarily fall into two categories – catamaran tours (larger boats) and zodiac raft tours (smaller boats). There are a variety of Maui whale watch tours but the best tours feature certified marine naturalists and a smaller group for a truly great experience.
While most whale watching trips used to depart from the Lahaina Harbor, that’s not currently the case due to the tragic Lahaina fires.
For now, most whale-watching trips depart from Maalaea Harbor south of Lahaina. Full-day boat tours usually last from 5-6 hours including lunch and time for snorkeling. While shorter trips last as little as 2 hours.
Which boat type is better – Catamaran or Zodiac?
I like them both but it depends on how adventurous you are. There are pros and cons to each and you should weigh them carefully before you book a tour.
Catamaran Whale Watching Tours
Zodiac Whale Watching Tours
Zodiac Raft Pros
Zodiac Raft Cons
Will I get seasick on a Maui whale-watching tour?
If you choose one of the 2-hour zodiac rafting trips you’ll probably be fine. These whale-watching tours don’t have to go too far offshore to find whales so the seas are generally calmer.
Plus, it’s just a 2-hour ride so if you do get sick, you’ll be back on terra firma in no time.
However, on the longer full-day trips, you might get seasick if you’re prone to it. It’s a boat tour. If you’ve gotten seasick on cruises or other boat excursions, the open ocean waves around the Hawaiian islands might not be your favorite experience.
If you’re worried about seasickness, a larger boat is a better choice and I would go with a catamaran trip versus a full-day raft tour. Also, Maui’s whale-watching tours are not recommended at all for those with limited mobility, back problems, recent surgeries, or pregnant women.
But enough about that, let’s get back to the good stuff. Like my picks for the best Maui whale-watching trips.
Here we go!
Best Maui Whale Watching Tours
By now, you’ve probably made your decision on the question of catamaran versus Zodiac raft. So I’ll break down my picks by boat type. So, grab your mai tai, and let’s get started!
Best Maui Whale Watching Tours – Catamaran
If you prefer a larger boat, these two catamaran tours are my favorite options. You can’t go wrong with either so I vote for picking the one that’s closest to where you’re staying.
This 2-hour tour is the perfect choice if you’re staying in Ka’anapali. Tours depart at 8am, 11am, and 2pm and include live commentary by naturalists, snacks, and an open bar.
This 2-hour tour aboard a power catamaran is perfect for those staying in South Maui. There’s plenty of shade on this roomy vessel and sodas and juice are included.
Best Maui Whale Watching Tours – Zodiac Raft
The zodiac raft is one of the best ways to get down to eye level with the gentle giants of the sea. Zodiac tours are the perfect choice for active travelers looking for a fun adventure.
Both of these trips are quick and easy and the perfect way to squeeze some whale-watching into your Maui vacation. The other nice thing about the short tours? If they get canceled due to weather (which happens a lot), they’re easier to reschedule on another day.
Dress accordingly for these zodiac tours, you will get wet!
Tip: For a better chance of calm seas, I recommend the morning tours.
Best Maui Full Day Whale Watching Tours
Sometimes a 2-hour whale-watching tour just isn’t enough. If you want a full day of fun on the water around Maui, there are some fabulous full-day boat trips, too.
These are two of the most popular full-day Maui boat tours all year round (but especially during whale season!). Both include breakfast and lunch plus terrific snorkeling and plenty of opportunities to spot whales, dolphins, and turtles.
They are two different boat types so pick the first one (a triple-decker catamaran) if you need more stability or want a trip great for smaller kids. And the second one is ideal if you’re looking for a more adventurous day at sea.
This 5 1/2-hour trip from Ma’alaea Harbor visits Molokini & Turtle Town on a roomy vessel with restrooms, showers, lifeguards, and a glass bottom viewing panel.
This popular 5-hour super raft tour aboard the Magic Merman visits two top snorkeling spots off West Maui. With an excellent crew and a small group vibe, this one is a favorite.
And that’s a wrap!
When you visit Hawaii, the best way to appreciate the ocean’s power and beauty is to get out on the water. The marine ecosystem around the Hawaiian Islands is incredibly diverse, from humpback whales and playful dolphins to tropical fish and gentle sea turtles.
There is a vast world waiting to be discovered beneath Hawaii’s warm waters and there’s no better way to explore it than with a whale-watching trip along Maui’s glorious western shores.
And if you’re headed to Oahu after you visit Maui, I’ve got you covered there, too: