Searching for Humpbacks: Whale Watching on Oahu

Posted in: Environment, Things to Do

We’re thrilled to have seen the first of many Humpback whales (kohola) in our island waters, and you can too. Nothing beats being able to see a mammoth whale up close in their natural habitat. Get ready to get acquainted with the mighty Humpback.

Breaching Humpback
A breaching Humpback whale [Photo Courtesy Dolphin Excursions]

These mighty and endangered humpback whales travel thousands of miles from their home in Alaskan waters to the Pacific Ocean, a route they undertake year after year. Like other mammals such as caribou whose migration routes are passed from one generation to the next, the same goes for Humpback whales. 

Researchers say there’s a group of Humpback whales known as the North Pacific stock that winter in three areas: Hawai‘i, western Mexico and the islands of southern Japan. The journey from Alaska to these sites has few stops as the whales travel about three to seven miles per hour.

Scientists believe that Humpback whales don’t indulge in the islands’ local cuisine, unlike those of us on vacation! That’s because their food, such as krill and small schools of fish, only live in the whales’ cool, nutrient-rich homewaters of Alaska. Like bears that gorge themselves before going into winter hibernation during which time their babies are born, humpback whales feed while at home in Alaska, then migrate to Hawai‘i where they mate, calve and nurse their young. Being mammals, the young nurse on their mother’s fat-rich milk, gaining up to 200 pounds a day during the first weeks of life.

Did you know that humpback whales are active and acrobatic? Check out their behavior while on a whale watch cruise. They’ll sometimes throw themselves completely out of the water, known as a breach. Also look for spy hops; tail, pec or penduncle slaps; and head lunges. If you’re fortunate, you just might see a mother teaching her calf how it’s done.

One of the best spots to glimpse whales from land is at the Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail. Walk the trail located within the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline (an incredibly scenic drive along rocky shoreline) and you’ll be treated to beautiful views of O‘ahu’s southeastern coastline that include Koko Head and Koko Crater. On a clear day, you might even see Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i. Bring water and binoculars!

Perhaps you’ve cruised along the Waikīkī coastline on a ship and seen the city lights and dense collection of manmade structures. Here’s an option that will help you breathe deeper—a dolphin or whale watch outing with Dolphin Excursions.

The company is located on O‘ahu’s west side and is based out of Waianae Boat Harbor where there’s less of a crowd competing for the view. 

“The harbor is in the middle of the Leeward coast,” explains Jenna Morris, senior captain and marine biologist, “where many species of mammals are found nearshore including whales, dolphins and monk seals.”

So hop aboard Nai‘a I and you’ll cruise along the coast from Barber’s Point all the way to remote Kā‘ena Point, passing maybe a couple of condos, the electric plant and the small communities of Nānākuli and Wai‘anae. But what you’ll be unprepared for is the elegantly beautiful, uninterrupted stretch of the Wai‘anae mountain range—definitely worth the drive to the west side.

Dolphin Excursions Tour
Dolphin Excursions offers several open ocean adventures [Photo Courtesy Dolphin Excursions]

Dolphin Excursions provides an open-ocean, safari-style dolphin tour that follows federal protocols for passive viewing of resident Spinner dolphins. This allows for flexibility to search for marine life and includes stopping at the best snorkel sites, as well as catering to guest requests. Marine biologists and naturalists, and at least one certified lifeguard for every six guests (maximum of 22 per tour) are part of the crew. They also assist with marine research by submitting photo identification of dolphins they encounter.

“There’s something about our boat that makes each interaction with wildlife special,” says Morris. “Our boat is quiet and sits less than three feet above the water allowing not only us to see the wildlife, but for the wildlife to see US. I’ll never forget the first time a 45-foot whale gently swam up to our 32-foot boat, and made eye contact with me. I try to share experiences like that with guests from all over the world to inspire and educate about how significant and fragile our ocean ecosystem is.”

During humpback whale season, join one of their dedicated whale tours. “We offer three-hour whale tours through March,” says Morris. “We snorkel with turtles and search for whales, and a picnic-style lunch on the boat is included.” And if you don’t see a whale on the tour, each guest receives a free return trip voucher! Same goes for the dolphin tour. 

Roundtrip transportation from Waikīkī and Ko ‘Olina hotels is also included, but if you’re driving, you’ll find lots of free parking available at the harbor. They also have their own bathrooms, changing rooms and outside showers. Plus enjoy a complimentary lunch at Spinners Cafe following the tour (if lunch isn’t provided on the boat).


A breaching Humpback whale [Photo Courtesy Dolphin Excursions]


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