Whale Watching on an Outrigger Tour in Maui

A bright flash of sun caught itself in a sheen of water as it splashed off the oar in my hand. I was sitting at the front of the outrigger canoe, the first to jump into the hull as the small crew behind me pushed the sliver of a boat through the water, slicing through it like a hot knife through butter. The sun was rising behind us as we pushed off the southern shore of Maui — just barely warm, casting a pinkish glow over the clouds, its reflection flashing like diamonds on the small caps of the waves.

Sunrise from an outrigger canoe

I love early morning outdoor activities like this one. While everyone on shore was still wiping the sleep from their eyes, I was already a kilometer offshore, cradled in the calm body of water protected by Maui, Lanai, and Kaho'olawe. This warm, gentle bay is well-known for the thousands of humpback whales that make the journey between December and April to give birth. And it was on the chance of catching a glimpse of these gentle giants that I embarked on this outrigger experience.

What is an Outrigger Canoe?

An outrigger canoe on shore

An outrigger canoe is a long, narrow boat that has supporting floats on either side of the main hull. These are actually the outriggers, which give the entire boat its name. Historically, these boats were the very first ocean-borne ships and helped to aid in the migration across the Pacific and South Pacific islands.

Today they are used both practically and for sport and tourism by locals and visitors to Hawaii. You can navigate with remarkable speed, and a boat tour in an outrigger canoe is one of the best ways to get closer to nature when visiting the Hawaiian islands.

The Best Time to See Whales in Maui

A humpback whale breaching in Maui

Thousands of humpback whales migrate down from Canada and Alaska to the warm waters surrounding Maui in order to give birth to their babies. The whales start showing up around December and will hang in the warm waters until April when they then make the journey back north.

I was visiting in January and early February, and you'd hear about whale sightings in the waters off of Maui almost every single day. While nothing in life is ever a guarantee, you can probably rest assured that if you're visiting Maui in December, January, February, March, or April you'll have a whale sighting.

Where to See Whales in Maui

A humpback whale tail, Maui

While whales can be seen all around Maui, the best place to see whales in Maui is in the Maui Nui Basin — the body of water I mentioned that is circled by Maui, Lanai, and Kaho'olawe. It's actually a protected sanctuary for whales because it's estimated that more than half of the humpback whale population that comes to Hawaii migrates to this spot.

I was staying at Wailea Beach Resort, one of the best resorts on Maui with a front-row seat to the basin and a near-daily display of whales when in season. Sitting up at the infinity pool, I would see whales breaching what felt like every hour.

But the opportunity to get out onto the water with the whales, using a traditional boat method that has been used for thousands of years, was one I simply could not pass up.

The hotel arranged for those who are interested to meet at 6:30am on the beach by the resort. After a brief run-down of the basic outrigger canoe terms (in native Hawaiian, of course), we were ready to hop aboard.

The hull of an outrigger canoe on the water

After a graceful entrance into the water, we were off and paddling. I was blown away by the speed at which these canoes can slice through the water. Before I knew it, the beachfront was fading further and further into the distance. While we could always see land, the silence of the morning, save for the gentle sound of lapping water against the outriggers, made me feel worlds away.

All of a sudden, the silence shattered with the haunting moan of what sounded like hundreds of ghoulish spirits, vibrating all around us. I didn't know it at the time, but our guide had placed a hydrophone underneath the surface of the water, amplifying and projecting the songs of hundreds of humpback whales that were swimming beneath us.

My skin prickled as my jaw fell to the floor and tears formed in my eyes. It was an overwhelming moment. What lies beneath is unimaginable as I was bobbing around in a defenseless tinderbox of a boat, only just realizing that hundreds (maybe thousands) of massive whales were crowding the depths of the water just below me.

I had spent a month in Hawaii at this point — a journey filled with hiking, waterfalls, wild adventures, and beautiful experiences. But this is the moment that I remember most clearly. The whales, the sunrise, the cone of Haleakala volcano in the distance — it was all the magic of Maui served up in one absolutely perfect little package.

How to See Whales in Maui

Outrigger canoes on the beach in the early morning

You have several options for doing an outrigger whale-watching experience in Maui. The one I used was through Wailea Beach Resort, which is only open to resort guests. But for those who are staying elsewhere, here are some other options:

Maui Pacific Tours offers outrigger whale-watching tours from December through March. They have two launch sites. The first is at Andaz Maui, just behind the Andaz Maui Hotel on Mokapu Beach. The other is at Grand Wailea, next to the Grand Wailea Hotel.

Hawaiian Ocean Sports also offers an outrigger experience, departing from Wailea Beach. They also have outrigger tours that focus on turtles, Hawaiian culture, and snorkeling.

Blue Soul Maui's outrigger canoe tours run from December through April, and visitors can also customize their tours to include sea turtle spotting, dolphin watching, and snorkeling.

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