Maui conjures up images of turquoise waters, soft sandy beaches, Don Ho, and umbrella drinks. It’s a place for visitors to honeymoon, relax, and rejuvenate – it’s all that and more.
From November through April, Maui entertains another type of visitor – the humpback whale. The warm shallow waters invite the whales to return each year to mate and calve. You won’t see jet skis and parasailers this time of year because the waters off the Maui coast are protected and considered to be a marine sanctuary. Instead, power boats and sailboats take intrigued tourists on whale watches.
For two or more hours many skippers navigate the waters searching for humpback whales. They look for blows – a plume of water vapor exhaled by humpbacks at the water’s surface; breaches – whales propelling out of the water and splashing back down against the ocean; or fluke dives – whales bringing their flukes above the water before diving down into the ocean with the water cascading off their tails like a waterfall.
You get involved too. Armed with binoculars and cameras, all passengers are on the lookout for whales. Most common sightings include a female with a newly born calf, competition pods of male whales that are fighting to win the attention of a female whale, or individual whales cruising the waters. You are in their habitat, so close encounters are not guaranteed. However, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act have helped to increase the whale population. More whales visit the Maui waters each year, so you rarely get skunked during whale season.
To incorporate a learning experience with a whale watch, ride one of the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) boats. Naturalists accompany you and spout facts about the whales, their environment, habitat, and conservation efforts. On most PWF whale watches, the naturalist submerges a hydrophone into the water to hear the whales sing. You hear a series of what sounds like squeaks, grunts and groans from nearby male whales. The sounds are so clear you think it is a recording.
For more than just a pleasant afternoon on the water, many vessels include a snorkeling adventure along with a whale watch. My favorite, Kamehameha Sails, out of Lahaina harbor will take you and your family on a 40-foot Woody Brown catamaran to sail the waters, snorkel, and whale watch. No crowds here – six passengers maximum. Tom Warren provides a true sailing experience. He uses the motor only to get in and out of Lahaina harbor or when the wind dies.
The whales seem to find his boat. I experienced whales swimming along side the boat and could see, hear, and smell them! I’ve seen breaches off the bow; calves swimming under the boat; competition pods of male whales fighting over one female whale churning up the waters and coloring it red with blood; curious calves spy hopping to get a look at what’s above the water; graceful fluke dives by the adult whales as they go deep into the waters to carry on their journey.
I am never disappointed when sailing with Tom. He shares his boat, his island stories, and his furry first mate, Ele Ele, a black lab that can spot a whale before any of the passengers on board. It’s an exhilarating sailing and whale watching experience that you will want to repeat.
Maui has much to do, delicious places to eat, lush scenery, and vivid rainbows. It’s the whales that bring me back. Experiencing an endangered species in its habitat touches you in a way you will never forget. You will hunger for more whale sightings.
Visit Maui. Visit the whales. Save your money and visit again.
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