Whale watching on the Big Island

Many people I have encountered seem to think that Maui is the only place that you can reliably see the humpback whales that frequent these warm waters from December to mid April.

Great for pictures but if you see a tail that means they are going for a deep dive!
Not so!  Not even close!  We were lucky enough to see a whale off the West coast of Oahu even in May while we were hanging with sea turtles.  Since moving to the Big Island we have also seen first hand that these whales are in fact very visible here as well.  Since the season started in December we see them nearly every time we go to the waters edge.

We are on the Hilo, or Eastern side, of the island and have even seen many whales here, pretty far off shore but they are still clearly present.  Just watch the horizon for a huge splash that signifies they are breaching or even just the spray from the blowhole.

We try to also go to the Kona side of the island at least every other week. Nearly every time we have gone there is an abundance of whales and usually far closer to shore.  They are amazing to watch even from far away but I knew that a trip on a boat would bring us much closer, increasing the awe for my boys.

I started the search for which company I would like to go with.  Ocean Sports- Hawaii's best whale watch cruises looked like a promising start!  I talked to several friends who used this company and had noting but great things to say.  I spoke with the representative and she was so friendly and helpful that it seemed like a no brainer to cruise with them.  We booked our tour and waited for the big day!

On our cruising day we woke to great weather, so beautifully clear even the summit was visible the entire way.  But as we crossed over Saddle road towards Kona we could see the clouds moving in.  I was told they sail even in rain so we pressed on and made it to the office just in time.

We booked the 10am cruise but they also offer one early morning with breakfast included or an evening sail including an open bar.  Since we had to drive so far and the kids didn't care much about the open bar the 10am sail seemed the best option. 

We were immediately greeted and given a pass which the kids thought was so fun, made them feel like VIPs (even though everyone had one).   We took a short and very comfortable bus ride over to the boat site where we were dropped off right at the dock and greeted by the attentive staff.  After receiving a safety briefing we were off.

Yikes!  It is always sunny in Kona...well almost always I guess!
The rain held off for the most part but the seas were pretty choppy.  I was thankful we took Dramamine before we got there and I suggest it to anyone who gets motion sick at all.  It did drizzle some so my camera needed to be put away rather quickly.  The boat is a large catamaran with plenty of room on deck as well as inside.  The kids rotated between being out on the fun netting between pontoons and heading inside for snacks and drinks, all included with the tour.

The staff on the boat were all so delightful, chatting with the kids, telling witty jokes, and steering us in the right direction to find whales.  Their naturalist, Adam, was a real gem.  So full of knowledge and clearly as excited as all of us to see and admire the whales.  He patiently answered questions and displayed a knowledge level of whales and ocean life in Hawaii that was most impressive.

We saw many whales, some just hanging near the surface with their babies and other breaching in the distance.  Even though the weather was not ideal and the ocean was rough they still were there and interacting in their environment.  Don't be discouraged if you get a less than optimal day, you can still have a great adventure and witness whales up close.  We were unable to use the hydrophone (underwater microphone from which you can hear the whales song)  though as with the choppy weather it could have been damaged.

I would absolutely recommend Ocean Sports for your whale watching adventure on the Big Island!  There are loads of whales and they know exactly where to find them.  They are perfectly situated on the Kohala coast in the Humpback sanctuary.  The  mid day watch is $99 per adult, 1/2 price for children 6-12 and free for children under 6!  The tours run from December to April 15th but the optimal time is right now!!  If you are in Hawaii I suggest you get out there soon!

If you are worried about NOT seeing any whales don't be, Ocean Sports guarantees a sighting on your morning trip or you can come back free of charge!  They also offer free transport from area hotels so if you don't have a rental car it is no problem.

After the trip there are also many great restaurants right where you are dropped off.  The driver recommended Kohala Burger and Taco so we went straight there.  Although it was not cheap the food was great and it was so convenient for our day.  Not a huge menu but they had great fries and onion rings, creamy milkshakes, large burgers made with grass fed beef, and loads of taco options.

What you may NOT know about humpback whales
  • The spray that comes out of the blowhole is not steam, or even water!  I was shocked to learn this from our great naturalist, Adam!  It is in fact a mucous based mixture and comes from their lungs.
  •  They actually do not have any humps, the way they swim along the top of the water is where they get their name since the arc they make while swimming causes a hump like shape to appear.
  • The mothers do not have any teats for the babies to suckle, instead a yogurt like substance is excreted into the water and the baby feeds on that.
  • They do NOT travel in pods on this journey like some other whales do. 
  • They migrate to Hawaii from Alaska every year,  It is their breeding and birthing ground.  
  • The whales arrive quite large after eating like crazy in Alaska.  In Hawaii they eat very little and leave having lost massive amounts of weight.
  • They weigh about 1 ton for every foot long they are.  45 feet long will be roughly 45 tons!
  • Their flippers are the largest of any whale.
  • Humpbacks can dive down and hold their breathe for up to 30 minutes but usually do not stay under for longer than 15 minutes at a time.
  • The gestation is almost a full year and they stay with their calves for a year after that.
  • Lifespan is roughly 50 years.
  • They are baleen whales with no teeth that feed on krill and small fish via a gulp method rather than a skimming method.

Do you have any other facts about humpback whales you can share with us?  Have you been on a whale watch in Hawaii?  How was it?

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  1. We went on a sunset cruise from a Honolulu dock a few weeks ago. I was expecting to see only the sunset, but we came across some whales cavorting right off Waikiki beach! We almost missed the sunset because we were all busy watching the whales -- facing in the wrong direction.

    1. I think whales are far better than any sunset anyway:)

  2. I love whales. We've been out on a boat to see them a couple of times and it is always magical. Now if I could just get over the sea sickness that comes along with such a trip - that'd be really great!

    1. Agreed, even the little guys were sick a bit. I wish I was one of those people that could just live on a boat loving every moment! Even with Dramamine I get sea sick..ughh!

  3. Humpbacks are amazing creatures!
    Scientists estimate that as much as 90% of the humpback whales population was eliminated during the whaling era. Today, there are 80,000 world-wide. They are one of the success stories of the conservation movement. Even though they are still protected and on the U.S. Endangered Species List, they are no longer considered threatened. Yeah!!!

    1. Absolutely! Thank goodness for that conservation or they may be gone today!