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Adult males range from 40 to 52 feet and can weigh up to 45 tons. Despite their size, humpback whales are graceful acrobats. Keep your eye on the ocean and you might see one breach, propelling up to 40 percent of its body out of the water and landing on its side with a spectacular splash.
Whales have great cultural significance for Native Hawaiians. They play a large role in Hawaiian legend—including one creation story—and appear in ancient petroglyphs on several islands. The return of the koholā (humpback whale) is considered more of a homecoming than a visit. Humpback whales are born in Hawaiian waters, making them kamaʻāina (native born). Some Native Hawaiians also believe the whales are ʻaumakua (family guardians), so these gentle giants are treated with great respect.
Cultural Significance of Whales in Hawaiʻi
Although humpback whales can be seen from all of the Hawaiian Islands, the shallow Auʻau Channel between Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi is one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world.
What's the Best Way to See Whales?
You may also spot koholā from the southern shores of Oʻahu, especially at Makapuʻu Lighthouse and along the seaside overlooks near Lēʻahi (Lēʻahi Head).
Kauaʻi offers a range of whale-viewing opportunities, including Poʻipū Beach on the South Shore, Kīlauea Lighthouse on the North Shore and Kapaʻa Overlook on the island’s Coconut Coast.
On the island of Hawaiʻi, whales are often seen along the shores of the Kohala Coast, as well as Hilo Bay on the east side of the island. The Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site is another great viewing spot, with its sweeping, elevated views near Kawaihae Harbor. In fact, Puʻukoholā literally means “hill of the whale” in Hawaiian.
Boat tours may be your best option for viewing whales up close. Hawaiʻi has dozens of tour operators, including a few that lead kayak excursions—a thrilling way to experience these majestic mammals.
In respect for the koholā and the safety of sightseers, all watercraft must stay a minimum of 100 yards from the whales, but you'll be surprised how close you feel when a 45-ton behemoth lunges out of the sea. If a boat tour is not for you, the whales’ impressive acrobatic displays are often visible from miles away. If you're on land, keep a pair of binoculars handy because you never know when you'll see a humpback’s spout (which can be 10–20 feet tall).
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