Maui March Madness: Humpback Whale Tales

Jumpback humpback whale with Maui in background. Photo by Kristin Safakas.

I’ve always had a fond place in my heart for the island of Maui –– and now my heart is broken because of the catastrophic fires in early August 2023 that destroyed Front Street and quaint downtown Lahaina.

I first traveled to The Valley Isle in 1964 with my family as a teenager,  only four years after it gained statehood. There were only three hotels along Kaanapali Beach at the time since it was then an exotic destination waiting to be discovered.

I visited the island another eight times over the years. Earlier memorable trips included several excursions in the 1970s with my brother, a family trip with my parents in 1985 that marked my first time snorkeling at Molokini Crater, our honeymoon in 1992, a vacation with our daughter there in 1999, and the most recent memory was this March. But I’ll always remember how rustic and inviting Lahaina was on all these past trips…  

I’m not stupid (though some might argue that fact). I know that a whale’s “tale” is called a “fluke”, but this is a story about humpback whales in the Maui Channel in March – during the tail end of their annual 6,000-mile, round-trip trek from Alaska.

Because I was traveling with my wife and another couple, all non-divers, I spent as much time on or in the water, swimming, snorkeling, and whale watching, but did not scuba dive in Maui on this trip.

The Maui Channel with Lanai in the background. Photo by Gil Zeimer.

10,000 Humpbacks, 7 months, Tons of Opportunities.
Each summer, humpbacks flourish in their feeding grounds in the waters of British Columbia, Alaska, and eastern Russia, feasting on an abundance of krill, plankton, and small fish.

As the cold, harsh winter approaches and food begins to become scarce, humpbacks migrate to the warm, protected waters of the tropics, not to feed, but to breed. In the warm, shallow Maui Channel with water temperatures in the mid-high 70s, they mate, give birth, and fast before returning north.

Another perfect Maui sunset – 80 degrees and gentle trade winds. Photo by Gil Zeimer.

In fact, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) estimates that every winter, as many as 10,000 humpback whales travel up to 3,000 miles south from Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, starting approximately in late November and lasting through mid-May, although the best months are typically January through March. They also travel to Japan and Mexico, but Maui among the Aloha State’s islands is the most popular.

The Best Place to See So Many Whales.
This Sanctuary is the only place in America where humpbacks come to reproduce, so it’s the best locale for tourists and researchers to see so many, so close to land, and so easily accessible via boat.

We were truly blessed in mid-March during our week-long stay in a condo at the Royal Kahana Maui by Outrigger to see whales virtually everywhere we looked. Situated between the overcrowded Kaanapali Beach resorts and tranquil Kapalua Bay on Maui’s northwest shore, our third-floor, two-bedroom, two-bath condo had spectacular views of Lanai and Molokai, as well as bright red sunsets, a rocky beach, and breaching humpbacks.

Though we expected to see far more whales than we did on our Alaska cruise last summer, we were literally blown away on a daily basis.

Thar she blows! (Or it could be a he.) Photo by Gil Zeimer.

We could sit on the wraparound lanai any time of day and spot the spout from a whale’s blowhole (nostrils) as it surfaced. Then, with our naked eyes or aided with binoculars, we could watch them breach.

As we watched The Oscars on TV in the living room, one whale’s activities caught my eye. Walking over to the windows,  I counted it breaching and and furiously slapping the water 28 consecutive times!

Scientists suspect that humpback whales who display this particular behavior are communicating, as all the splashing sends long-distance messages to their pod, while the slapping creates sounds used to send messages. We also thought that this behavior could be a sign of distress or aggression against other males.

Exactly How Big Are Humpback Whales?
Adults can reach up to 45 to 50 feet in length, weigh up to 80,000 to 90,000 pounds (40 to 45 tons), while newborn calves can be 10 to 16 feet long, weighing 3,000 pounds.

An adult humpback’s heart weighs about 450 pounds and pumps as much as 750 gallons of blood through its body. By contrast, a blue whale’s heart is the size of a VW Beetle and weighs more than 1,000 pounds.

Whale Watching By Boat.
We took three whale watching trips during our vacation. The first was a 2.5-hour premium sunset cruise with dinner out of Lahaina on a Sea Maui 65-foot catamaran. Though the food was just so-so, the drinks were potent, and the crew was very accommodating. We saw too many whales to count – breaching, fluking, and spyhopping. Quite an evening and definitely worthwhile.

Part of the “dinner and a show” at sunset. Photo by Gil Zeimer.

The next day, my buddy and I booked the Leilani Molokini Snorkel out of Maalaea Harbor from 8am – 1pm on the Pride of Maui’s Leilani another 65-foot catamaran. We didn’t see any whales on the ride out to this half-sunken volcanic crater, but did see quite a few on the way back. As with previous trips to this extremely popular destination, the semi-circle of the crater area was filled with “cattle-marans” – I counted at least 12 boats with dozens of people on each one.

The snorkeling was quite good – pretty decent visibility and tons of Hawaiian triggerfish. The boat had shorty wetsuits available for rent to provide extra warmth. They also prepared breakfast and lunch with an open bar. Many happy campers!A few days later, we were back on the Sea Maui, this time out of Kaanapali Beach, for a 2-hour late morning-early afternoon whale watch. I asked one of the crew members who’d lived on the islands for about a decade what he thought was the penultimate date for seeing the leviathans. He didn’t hesitate and blurted out, “February 26th!” Again, we were treated to a whale of a show of breaching and fluking.

Hawaiian Triggerfish. Photo by Gil Zeimer.

“Fluke” – The Novel
Finally, I first read “Fluke: Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings” by Christopher Moore many years ago. This hilarious novel, which I happily thumbed through again on this trip, is about a Maui whale researcher who is trying to figure out why whales sing.

One day, he wonders if he’s spent too much time in the sun because he took a photo of a humpback’s fluke, then zoomed in to read “Bite Me” scrawled on its tail. It’s available on Amazon and is a true joy, even the second time around.

Also, you should listen to some of the cuts on this famous record, “Songs of The Humpback Whale”, which was produced in 1970 by Roger Payne, sold over 100,000 copies, became the best selling album in environmental history, and spawned the “Save The Whales” movement worldwide.

Gil Zeimer & Ellen Young. Photo by Paula Saling.

While Maui is the second most popular island for tourists, especially during “whale season”,  I highly recommend it to see these magnificent creatures. But, book early for hotels or condos, the most popular restaurants, and especially the whale watching cruises.

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